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Executive Summary for January 22nd

We review and analyze the most important developments in Syria, including the “proximity talks” due to start next week and the opposition’s demand that Assad take goodwill humanitarian steps before any talks take place. Our goal is to keep you informed of the most significant recent events.

Published on Jan. 22, 2016 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Opposition and Government Will Not Meet Directly to Begin Syria Talks: Kerry

In the first round of Syria talks scheduled for next week in Geneva, the opposing sides will not meet face-to-face, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday.

The first round of negotiations between the Syrian opposition and Bashar al-Assad’s government will be “proximity talks,” in which representatives of each side gather separately, AP reports.

The talks, tentatively scheduled for Monday January 25, will most likely be pushed back a few days.

You are not going to have a situation where people are sitting down at the table staring at each other or shouting at each other,” Kerry said, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “You’re going to have to build some process here.”

Kerry said there was a “firmly embedded outline” fixed for the talks in which U.N. special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura is to go between the two delegations and say, “OK, here’s how we envision a cease-fire” to one, and then head to the other side to present the same thing.

“That’s proximity talk,” said Kerry.

The Syria talks come alongside a series of recent battlefield victories by the Syrian government that have put rebel forces in disarray. And as the government takes the upper hand on the ground in many areas, some analysts wonder whether the Geneva talks could quickly become moot.

“We don’t want to waste time,” said Kerry. We have to get into the talk of creating this unity transitional government which the Iranians have proposed, the Russians have accepted and everybody has signed on to in the context of Geneva and Vienna twice, and the U.N. Security Council resolution.”

No Peace Talks Unless Assad Takes Humanitarian Steps: Opposition

The opposition’s chief negotiator said Thursday there would be no peace talks unless the government takes the humanitarian steps outlined by the U.N. Security Council, including an end to blockades and a halt in attacks on civilians.

“The session will not take place until the measures are implemented … While no measures are taken, the chances are zero,” said Mohamad Alloush, a member of the Jaish al-Islam politburo who was appointed chief opposition negotiator on Wednesday, Reuters reports.

Alloush was referring to humanitarian steps outlined in a December 18 U.N. Security Council resolution meant to build confidence between the two sides as they move forward in the peace process.

“We don’t want to go to Geneva … for photos,” he said.

The opposition has demanded that certain clauses in the U.N. resolution, including the release of arbitrarily detained prisoners and a halt in attacks on civilian areas, be implemented before talks begin.

The appointment of Alloush as chief negotiator may further complicate the peace talks. While Russia and the Assad government view Jaish al-Islam as a terrorist organization, many rebel groups see it as genuine part of the opposition.

Russia has also been pushing to include representatives from the main Syrian Kurdish party, the PYD, in the opposition’s delegation.

The PYD’s affiliated YPG militia has established close ties with the United States, and has proven to be the most effective ground partner in the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against the so-called Islamic State.

Neither the PYD nor the YPG were invited to the conference in Riyadh last month that established the opposition’s negotiating council.

As Russia and U.S. Push for Peace, Both Compete for Position on Ground

As Russia and the United States attempt to bring the Syrian opposition and the Assad government together for peace talks next week, both countries are simultaneously jockeying for better positions on the ground, the New York Times reports.

Russia is expanding its military hold, establishing operations in an airfield in a mostly Kurdish province in northeastern Syria, across the country from its main coastal base. In a neighboring province, the U.S. is increasing its aid to Kurdish militias and has taken over a small agricultural airport, according to locals.

The competition for influence in Syria’s east is tied to rivalry between Russia and the U.S. over who will lead the global fight against ISIS.

“Both powers seem to be presuming that the peace effort will fail and are digging in for the next phase of war,” Anne Barnard and Eric Schmitt wrote in the New York Times.

Western leaders have long called for a united front against the extremist group, but that prospect looks increasingly remote due to fundamental differences between the U.S. and Russia over the future of Syria.

Moscow is one of Bashar al-Assad’s greatest allies and sees little difference between the armed insurgency against the Syrian government and the Islamic State extremist group.

Washington sees Assad’s heavy-handed crackdown on his opponents as a key impetus behind the rise of ISIS.

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Top image: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov walk to their seats for a meeting about Syria, in Zurich, Switzerland, on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, before Kerry was to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

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