Syrian peace talks lost in a fog of war

By Annie Slemrod

Middle East Editor

“Five years of conflict have been too much. The horror is in front of everyone’s eyes… You have seen enough conferences, two of them already taken place. This one cannot fail.”

Fine words from UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura in a video message to the Syrian people on Thursday evening, the day before he hoped to sit down in Geneva with many of the protagonists and eke out some progress towards peace.

Slight problem: before this message could even be rolled out to the media, George Sabra, head of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella of opposition groups, announced that he and others would not be attending.

"For certain we will not head to Geneva and there will not be a delegation from the High Negotiations Committee tomorrow in Geneva," he told Arabic TV network al-Hadath.

Sabra’s objection could be tied to earlier demands for a halt to the bombardment of civilian areas and the lifting of blockades on besieged areas. Another opposition group is protesting the exclusion from the talks of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).

So will the talks go ahead or not? Is Sabra for real or is this just more brinksmanship in a week full of brinksmanship?

De Mistura, who has already delayed the talks once, from Monday, didn’t rush to do so again.

“We have no comments to George Sabra's announcement,” his office wrote in an emailed reply to IRIN. “As for the talks, the SE [Special Envoy] intends to hold the talks as planned tomorrow hoping that both parties will be here.”

So what if the talks do go ahead?

If and when the latest Syrian peace talks begin, there won’t be any pomp and circumstance. Don’t expect an opening ceremony or the customary photo-op.

That’s because de Mistura has avoided officially splitting invitees into regime and opposition delegations – in fact he hasn’t issued a public list of invitees.

Instead, he’s muddied the waters by including representatives of civil society, women’s groups, and various interested parties. This gives all participants the chance to leave in a huff without bringing the whole morass down.

He said as much at a press conference earlier this week: “There will be a lot of posturing, we know that, a lot of walk-outs and walk-ins because a bomb has fallen or because someone has done an attack.”

Confused? That’s likely by design. Syria expert Aron Lund of the Carnegie think-tank believes de Mistura deliberately created as much ambiguity as possible so the talks wouldn’t be snagged on minor details, you know, like who exactly turns up.

As Lund told IRIN: “[de Mistura] is deliberately making it more confusing in order to make it less complicated.”

So who might be coming?

Thanks to this strategy, and especially following Sabra’s 11th hour curve ball, nobody knows who will be in Geneva to discuss the future of Syria, for the third official time since the war began in 2011.

Sabra is one of the main players in a coalition of Syrian opposition groups that is backed by Saudi Arabia. In its current form, it is known as the High Negotiations Committee and its lead negotiator is Mohammed Alloush of the Islamist militant group Jaysh al-Islam.

Another key Islamist rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, was reportedly undecided about attending the talks. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and ally Russia consider both Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham to be terrorist groups.

The Kurds are another sticking point. Turkey threatened to boycott if the PYD – which it sees as an offshoot of its own, outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – were allowed to join. Even if the PYD aren’t officially in Geneva, keep a lookout for representatives from the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of fighters they dominate and which controls a large chunk of northern Syria.

The regime side is slightly more cut and dried. Syria’s ambassador to the UN, Bashar al-Jaafari, is lead negotiator. At Geneva II, he memorably called the opposition “traitors” and angrily spoke past his allotted time in the opening statements. If the regime intended to strike a deal, Jaafari is an odd choice.

But it also makes perfect sense. Neither side, if the fragmented opposition can be called that, has indicated a real willingness to negotiate. They are coming, in short, because their financial backers have told them to.

“Assad is not going because he wants to negotiate, and not because he thinks the opposition can deliver [on unity],” Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told IRIN. “He’s going because his major sponsor, Russia, has told him to.”

It’s much the same for the opposition. In fact, opposition officials have complained that the United States is pressuring them to attend without preconditions.

“These sides are there, not to sit down and talk face to face with their opponents… they are there because they are trying to please their sponsor powers,” Landis continued. “In some ways it is about the sponsor powers talking to each other, that is where the dialogue is going to go on.”

Might they actually talk to each other?

There won’t be any face-to-face conversations at this stage. These are proximity talks, with the UN shuttling messages between the parties.

The past two rounds have failed to make any noticeable difference on the ground, and de Mistura has made it clear that he wants to try a different tack.

In the past, discussion has hinged on a key demand from the opposition and the United States: Assad must go. But with Russia now in the fray and the regime making gains on the ground, the position of US President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry appears to be evolving.

This may anger the opposition, but de Mistura has made it clear that any first steps must be towards a ceasefire, not any grand plans for a political transition.

Hang on, what about so-called Islamic State?

There’s an obvious hitch in this plan – neither the so-called Islamic State nor the powerful rebel Nusra Front will be in Geneva. The UN labels both terrorist groups. Without their presence, it is difficult to imagine any large-scale ceasefire holding.

But there might be room for smaller, piecemeal deals, locally across the country. This has happened already in a reported 30 or so towns. Some have since failed, but others have held. Notably, those truces that have lasted have been overseen on the regime side by Iran or Russia.

“I don’t think you’ll see [major] deals at Geneva, but I do think you’ll see them on the ground,” Landis said. “The regime has been making gains; [the] opposition isn’t finding the strong support it once had in the international community for a quick transition of power. If the opposition doesn’t hear ‘Assad must go,’ they might be more amenable to these deals.”

Baby steps

If any talks happen and that translates to any kind of progress, either diplomatically or on the ground, de Mistura might feel at least something has been achieved.

The veteran Italian-Swedish diplomat has said he expects this stage of the talks to last a few weeks, with a larger process expanding for some six months.

If progress is to be made, it will be painfully slow. For now, the talks are something of a diplomatic game.

“The whole process is driven basically by the United States and Russia, and [even] they don't agree,” explained Lund. “They all realise that nothing that happens now will determine how the talks or the war end, but they are trying to squeeze every drop of opportunity out of it.”

This could mean public relations points, a chance to rub shoulders with various groups in back channel talks, or in the case of rebels – saying what Saudi Arabia wants in exchange for more and better arms.

With the main opposition group unlikely to show, and talks in separate rooms even if they do, these aren’t really peace talks at all. As Geneva prepares for this latest political manoeuvring and backroom deals, the toll from almost five years of war approaches 300,000.

as/ag