Syria’s government and opposition will start a new round of UN-brokered talks in Geneva on Tuesday, but there is little optimism for progress towards ending the seven-year conflict.
After months of stalemate, the talks are expected to focus primarily on a new constitution and elections, two of the four so-called “baskets” of reforms laid out by the United Nations for a political settlement to the Syria crisis.
The UN’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said he hoped the warring factions would start a fresh round of negotiations “without preconditions” and within the framework of the UN Security Council’s resolutions.
“We are all moving, I hope, in the direction of implementing Resolution 2254 and a political solution long overdue in Syria,” said De Mistura from Moscow on Friday, at the end of a frantic week spent between the Saudi and Russian capitals in a bid to ensure that both the government and the opposition would come to Geneva ready to lay the groundwork for a political solution.
De Mistura announced earlier that he would press hard for “particular up-front attention on a new constitution and UN-supervised elections”, two of the four baskets, which also include a non-sectarian transitional government and “counterterrorism” measures.
Discussions will also address the issue of detainees, abductees and missing persons, De Mistura said, along with the need for full humanitarian access in any besieged or hard-to-reach-areas, including Eastern Ghouta.
De Mistura said a follow-up round of talks would likely take place in December.
Some 50 delegates representing different factions within the Syrian opposition arrived in the Swiss city of Geneva over the weekend in preparation for the talks.
The unity of the opposition front will be put to the test on Tuesday. Disagreement over the future role of President Bashar al-Assad in a transitional government has considerably weakened the opposition’s capability to negotiate a favourable way out of the crisis over the past few months.
Statements issued by the opposition after a two-day meeting in Riyadh last week did not clarify how this critical issue would play out.
According to a statement issued by the Riyadh conference on Friday, “the participants stressed that the transition cannot happen without the departure of Bashar al-Assad and his circle at the start of the interim period”. Hours later, however, Nasr Hariri, the new chief negotiator for the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), Syria’s main opposition group, told reporters that the opposition was ready to discuss “everything on the negotiating table” without preconditions.
Early last week, Hariri replaced Riyad Hijab, a former Syrian prime minister, who led the HNC for almost two years. Hijab, a hardliner, hinted in a statement that the HNC had faced pressure to make concessions in favour of Assad. His departure led to speculation that the group may soften its stance towards the Syrian president and his role in the transitional period.
Significantly, Hijab’s resignation came as Assad made a televised appearance next to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, where the Russian leader, a staunch supporter of Assad, held a meeting with his Iranian and Turkish counterparts to discuss the Syria crisis.
“It is important to reach a political settlement now, and Assad is ready to work with anyone who wants peace,” said the Russian president, who later announced he would convene a Syria Congress at the beginning of December in Sochi.
Appearing strong in the wake of the successful fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and major territorial gains after two years of Russian and Iranian military interventions that reversed the conquests of the opposition, Assad now has the upper hand in the negotiations.
Analysts were sceptical that the Geneva talks would make any progress towards a political settlement.
“There will not be a formal Geneva-style diplomatic settlement, whether under UN auspices or other,” said Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. According to Sayigh, the Russia-backed Astana talks, a parallel track to the UN-sponsored peace process, aim to reintegrate the Syrian opposition under the current state system.
Marwan Kabalan, an analyst with the Doha Institute, noted that the fate of Assad would long remain a contentious issue: “A significant part of the country in the north and south, holding most of the oil and water reserves, is not under the control of the regime. This means the conflict will last much, much longer than people expect.”
The final communique from the opposition in Riyadh focused primarily on rejecting Iran’s interference in Syria. Saudi Arabia has thrown its weight behind a number of opposition groups and has pushed for the removal of Assad in a bid to contain Iran’s growing hegemony in the region.
But the Sochi meeting was emblematic of a new geopolitical reality, wherein Assad and his allies will continue to play a dominant role in Syria and the rest of the region.
Syria’s civil war, now in its seventh year, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and created the world’s worst refugee crisis, driving more than 11 million people from their homes.
In its 2018 Humanitarian Needs Overview on Syria, published last week, the UN said that the scale and severity of needs across Syria remain overwhelming. Some 13 million people require humanitarian assistance, including 5.6 million in acute need due to limited access to basic goods and services.
Of the 5.5 million Syrian refugees worldwide, most of whom remain in neighbouring countries, a very limited number have returned to Syria. In 2017, around 720,000 people returned to their areas of origin.