On July 9, Staffan de Mistura, a veteran Swedish diplomat, was chosen to succeed Lakhdar Brahimi as the United Nations’s Special Envoy to Syria.
He takes office at a time when Syria’s peace negotiations are seen as practically dead. Despite the presence of a regime contingent, spring’s Geneva II conference yielded few tangible results and was largely regarded as a failure due largely in part to the absence of participation from Iran, the Syrian regime’s main backer. With Assad gaining ground in Aleppo, Damascus and along the southern front, analysts say it’s unlikely he will feel pressure to return to the negotiating table in the near future.
We asked Riad Kahwaji, CEO of the Dubai-based think tank INEGMA, and Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa director at the Eurasia Group, to weigh in on the direction Syria’s peace effort could take.
Syria Deeply: What is the future of the peace talks? Will we see another Geneva?
Ayham Kamel: The iterations of the Geneva conferences were about different structures of a political agreement, or strategic objectives. The goal of the first was to transition completely out of the Assad regime and the second was more about a partnership with the opposition. If we have another – and I doubt we will at this stage – it will be focused on humanitarian aspects and supporting local processes, rather than committing international parties to a really ambitious agenda.
Syria Deeply: What is de Mistura’s objective in regards to negotiations?
Kamel: Mistura’s background is focused on humanitarian access, which signals where the process is going. They are also now really creating a split between what was traditionally a joint position between the Arab League and the U.N. into solely a U.N. position. This depoliticizes the process in a way that will allow de Mistura greater credibility in providing humanitarian access. There is a higher likelihood of cooperation and regime facilitation [of aid] right now – the Arab League objectives were largely seen as hostile.
I think de Mistura’s intention is to deal with both local armed groups and the regime to facilitate cease-fires and humanitarian access. It’s about building sustainable and internationally supported local cease-fires. His mandate is to really find these agreements and get the opposition the best deal he can in the current political environment.
Syria Deeply: What is Assad’s stance on talks?
Riad Kahwaji: Right now we have one party that is not interested in any process, and that’s the Syrian regime. They have their own elections, Assad has a new term in power, and he feels that he is getting more control on the ground with the ongoing support of his allies Hezbollah, Iran and Russia. I don’t see any motive for the regime to attend any peace talks as long as it’s confident that it is making gains on the ground, rebel forces are getting hit by ISIS, and there is no real effort by the West [to] arm and strengthen the rebels.
Basically, the regime has no serious desire to go into peace negotiations. They might be interested in some symbolic gestures, some sort of agreement that will keep them in power. But now to go back and have discussions as per the Geneva conditions, I don’t see it happening.
Syria Deeply: Will we see a change in the negotiations landscape over the next few months?
Kamel: On a broader scale, [de Mistura’s appointment] really sets a track that is completely independent of the Syrian National Council or any opposition body abroad. It reinforces the fact that the power in Syria is very much local. Whether on the rebel or regime side, relevant parties are local, not abroad, and the leadership inside Syria has a greater sway on political events there.
Kahwaji: The Syrian regime will continue to say that it wants peace talks, but at the same time it will not show any real flexibility at the table or in engaging the other party on anything short or long term.The West has completely failed in negotiations, and the moderate opposition is in its weakest position ever. It does not have any leverage whatsoever over the current situation in Syria. It’s going to take a change in the balance of power on the ground to get the regime to the table in the future. The regime will have to be convinced that it can’t win this fight for us to see more peace talks. Iran is, right now, a major power broker in Syria – and Syria has become its most precious bargaining chip. To get any negotiations going in Syria the next time, Iran has to be on board and included.