As parties to Syria’s war sit down at the negotiating table this week in Geneva, it’s clear that neither side is willing to compromise. However, many are still hopeful that the talks will be taken seriously and bear fruit, and the co-chairs of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) – the United States and Russia – will capitalize on the progress made over the past two weeks of partial cease-fire.
Many had speculated that the temporary cessation of hostilities, implemented in Syria on February 27, would not hold. Members of the opposition voiced concerns that the Syrian regime, backed by Russia and its allied militias, would continue to target the opposition under the pretext of fighting “terrorist groups.” However, international pressure forced the truce to largely hold in place.
“The cease-fire has been holding, and has greatly reduced violence in Syria,” said U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura. “Unfortunately, we have to admit that there are still a number of places where fighting has continued, like in Hama, Homs and Damascus, though it has been contained.”
The partial truce paved the way for the resumption of peace talks this week, which diplomats and Syrians alike hope will bring an end to the five years of armed conflict in Syria. But the warring parties remain preoccupied by the future of President Bashar al-Assad. The transitional government is particularly contentious because, although U.N. resolution 2254 states that a six-month transitional period should lead to new elections, it does not explicitly address the makeup of the transitional government and whether or not Assad should be allowed to take part in it.
Walid Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister, alluded to the issue in a press conference in Damascus on March 12. Muallem said the U.N. Resolution had not addressed the formation of a transitional governing body, indicating that the Syrian government would offer a national unity government with opposition participation, and a new or amended constitution. Muallem also stated that the peace talks would fail if any party tried to discuss the presidency in a transition government, calling the incumbent Assad a “red line.” According to the Syrian opposition, this red line from the regime put “the nail in the coffin” of the peace process before it even started.
In reaction to Muallem’s comments, the well-known Syrian opposition figure Walid al-Bunni said in a post on his Facebook page: “The gap between what the High Negotiation Committee wants, and how the Syrian regime envisions the process, is huge. The former wants the regime out of power in six months, and the latter wants to hold on to it forever. Both sides know very well that no one in history has ever achieved through negotiations what they failed to achieve through military operations.” Bunni drew a resemblance between the coming Geneva Talks and the Oslo Accords between the Palestinians and the Israelis, “Doesn’t this remind you of Oslo negotiations? If it does, then who is Abbas, and who is Netanyahu here?” he asked.
Many observers believe the latest round of peace talks in Geneva represent the most serious to date, particularly because of the unexpected success of the cease-fire. They are content because it has finally given Syrians a degree of relative safety, something they haven’t had since the start of the uprising in March 2011. Therefore, the international community will desperately push both sides to reach an agreement in the coming negotiations, and will possibly leave the problematic issue of Assad’s future for another time.
The Russian government, one of the strongest allies of the Syrian regime, continues to set different goals to test the limits of the negotiating parties. While it says that it hopes for a federal government in Syria, at a separate time, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov says that it is necessary for the Kurds to be represented in the negotiations. By the Kurds, Russia means, of course, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) headed by Saleh Muslim, which Turkey considers a terrorist group and wishes to exclude from any negotiations regarding the situation in Syria. The Syrian regime also wants to include the Democratic Union Party in the negotiations, while the Syrian opposition accuses it of cooperating with the regime in the Kurdish-controlled areas of Hassakeh and Qamishli.
The Syrian regime, besides its “red line” stance on Assad, has demanded that negotiations can include only delegations that represent opposition groups still functioning within the country.
After sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into the conflict in Syria, Russia is eager to find a quick solution and disengage. A crippled Syrian economy and a reconstruction cost likely to be well over $100 billion mean that Russia has no interest in wading through the Syrian swamp any longer than it has to. Thus the reason why Moscow forced the regime to semi-respect the cease-fire and has now begun to withdraw its military forces as peace talks begin in Geneva.
Can the Parties Reach Common Ground?
The best approach would be to push for a transitional period, led by a government agreed upon by all parties, that would eventually lead to presidential elections and to a new constitution, and to leave the issue of Assad’s fate to later. However, the opposition and its allies, primarily Saudi Arabia, continue to demand a transitional body in which Assad has no role.
Russia and the U.S. should pressure both sides to compromise and hopefully find common ground so the negotiations may move forward, and so that we do not waste an opportunity that may not come again.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Syria Deeply.
Top image: Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem sits beneath a portrait of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as he speaks during a press conference in Damascus on Saturday, March 12, 2016. (SANA via AP)