What went wrong at Syria peace talks?

Bashar al-Assad
Bashar al-Assad
The biggest push so far to launch talks between Syria’s warring parties, aimed at ending an almost five-year-old war, was suspended late Wednesday. But it looked to many doomed from the start.
With the opposition arriving late in Geneva and unrealistically demanding immediate action on the humanitarian front while regime forces backed by Russia advanced on the ground, the announcement of the “pause” until February 25 was therefore little surprise, experts said.
– Who was in Geneva? –
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura’s challenging brief was to coax both sides into six months of indirect talks, as envisioned under a roadmap for peace set out in November in Vienna by the many outside powers embroiled in the conflict.
The delegation representing President Bashar al-Assad’s government, headed by the country’s ambassador to the United Nations, arrived in Geneva for the start of the talks on January 29.
Representatives of the main opposition umbrella group the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) meanwhile only began arriving a day later.
Largely absent were the Kurds, who have made advances against the Islamic State jihadist group in recent months.
– What was happening on the ground? –
Even as de Mistura talked separately to both sides, violence raged on the ground, with regime forces backed by intense Russian air strikes advancing against rebels north of Syria’s second city Aleppo.
Outraged HNC delegates, under pressure from home, called the strikes “unprecedented” and a “massacre” and cancelled a meeting on Tuesday with de Mistura.
A day later, after regime forces cut the last supply route linking rebels in Aleppo to the Turkish border, threatening a total encirclement, de Mistura announced the suspension.
“People were saying that we should stay a few more days but we were getting criticised that nothing was happening, that we had achieved nothing,” HNC spokesman Munzer Makhaus told AFP on Thursday.
– Does Assad even want talks? –
Western countries blame the failure on the regime offensive and on Assad’s backer Russia, which began its military campaign in late September, adding to Iranian support.
Experts say that Russia and Assad see no point in serious negotiations, at least as long as they are advancing against the rebels on the ground.
“The regime was losing ground in the summer of 2015… Russia’s intervention has stopped and reversed this deterioration,” Fred Hof from the Atlantic Council told AFP.
“Russia sees the Vienna peace process and the Geneva talks as a diplomatic chapeau that buys time for a fact-creating military campaign. Serious negotiations leading to ceasefires and the like do not serve its interests,” Hof said.
“Therefore it raised questions about the legitimacy of the opposition delegation, it escalated its bombing campaign, it dismissed concerns about protection of civilians as irrelevant preconditions, and it did nothing to compel its client to come prepared to negotiate seriously.”
– What next? –
Events on the ground are not the only problem, however. The HNC was only cobbled together in December and comprises a range of different groups, not necessarily with the same interests and backers.
The group only grudgingly agreed to show up in Geneva after several days of wrangling in Riyadh. Damascus and Russia strongly object to its inclusion of Islamist rebels whom it sees as “terrorists”.
Now it is likely to hike the pressure on its backers, including demanding that Washington press Moscow to halt its bombing campaign and restrain Assad, or provide more military support to rebels.
“You could have the Saudis and the Turks and others pour in new weapons into northern Syria to reverse the regime games or stop Assad, so you could have a completely different situation in a few months,” Aron Lund from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told AFP.
An opposition source said that the Saudi defence minister was in Geneva on Wednesday for talks with HNC members.
“This failure was accelerated by events on the ground and the regime advances around Aleppo, but in any case the diplomatic conditions (for progress in Geneva) were not there,” said Karim Emile Bitar, analyst at the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations.
“The regime is on the ascendency psychologically since the intervention of Moscow. It can afford to thumb its nose at the process,” he told AFP.
“But let us be clear, this goes beyond the regime as well as the opposition. They are not masters of their own destiny. This depends on regional and international powers, as long as there is no modus vivendi among them, nothing is possible.”

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