Vienna, Austria – A new round of Syria talks is starting on Wednesday in Vienna in what officials said may be the “last hope” for a resolution to the seven year-long conflict.
Delegations representing both the Syrian government and the opposition are expected to attend the negotiations in the Austrian capital at the behest of the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura.
The UN envoy defined this as a very critical moment for the languishing peace process.
“I am optimistic because it is the only way to be at such moments,” de Mistura told journalists on Wednesday. “It is a very, very critical moment.”
Speaking in Paris, France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian said the UN-led process is the only and last resort for the international community to find a way out of the Syrian crisis.
“There is no prospect of a political solution today except, and it’s the last hope, the meeting that opens in Vienna,” he said.
The latest round of Syria talks held in Geneva in December failed amid a tit-for-tat between Syrian government and opposition’s delegates over statements about the future role of President Bashar al-Assad in a transitional government.
With the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group defeated and the Russians announcing a partial withdrawal of troops, mediators felt the December round offered the right opportunity to push forward the political process.
But the Syrian government refused to hold even indirect talks saying the opposition’s demands for a removal of Assad constituted a precondition that infringed the basic principles of the talks.
This time in Vienna, the opposition moderated its tone, but not the substance of its requests.
“We are here to discuss all the details to achieve a real political transition, a new constitution and elections based on the Security Council resolution 2254,” Nasr Hariri, the chief negotiator of the Syria Negotiating Commission, told journalists in Vienna on Wednesday.
Hariri said he was sceptical that the Syrian government would show a real commitment to the Geneva peace track.
“We’ll test the regime’s real intentions to have negotiations this time … however we are afraid that the government and its sponsors still believe there is only a military solution and not a political one, as the situation on the ground shows.”
Backed by the Russians, the Syrian government is still on the offensive and its military operations against the rebels have recently gained new momentum.
The recent offensive on the governorate of Idlib and Hama province that started two weeks ago has proved the government and its sponsors’ relentlessness in their attempt to clear the Syrian territory from ISIL and other opposition forces.
Idlib, which had become a refuge for hundreds of thousands of Syrian families during the conflict, is now witnessing daily bombardments. About 200,000 people, most of whom had escaped the conflict in other parts of Syria, have fled the area in recent weeks.
In the meantime Eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held area on the outskirts of Damascus, remains besieged by Syrian forces since 2013. About 400,000 people are trapped inside the enclave where the siege has caused a humanitarian catastrophe, as denounced by the United Nations humanitarian agencies.
Damascus and Moscow have ignored repeated appeals by the international community and the United Nations to let the injured and sick out of the enclave through humanitarian corridors, in particular some 300 people, mainly children, in dire need of medical assistance.
Over the past two years Damascus has regained large swaths of territory from both ISIL and rebels of the Free Syrian Army. Gains on the ground have strengthened the government’s negotiating position and have effectively overhauled the opposition’s initial prospects for an overthrow of the Syrian government.
In the meantime, the situation in the Kurdish-held areas is also deteriorating.
Turkey is conducting a military offensive against Kurdish fighters in the Syrian enclave of Afrin with Moscow’s agreement. Relations between the two countries have improved as of late and Russians have allowed the Turkish air force to use Afrin’s airspace, which is controlled by the Syrian government.
Afrin has come under the control of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers terrorist organisations affiliated to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Backed by the United States, the Kurdish fighters have been key players in the fight against ISIL and have taken control of large areas of territory in northern Syria, a situation that has deeply worried Ankara.
Turkey has threatened to extend operations further east to Manbij where US forces are embedded with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the main US ally in the war against ISIL.
Ankara’s operation stemmed from the announcement of plans by the United States for the creation of a Kurdish border force with about 30,000 military personnel in the area controlled by the SDF.
Some analysts believe Moscow’s aim is to increase tensions between Washington and Ankara.
“Russia does not publicly support such a military operation, but it opened the gate to Turkey because it basically starts a proxy war between Turkey and the US [through YPG],” Sergei Markov, a political analyst he told Al Jazeera.
President Donald Trump warned Turkey against expanding its military offensive telling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that such action could lead to a direct conflict between the two NATO countries.
Asked to comment on the developments in Afrin, Hariri said the Syrian opposition, whose members are strongly supported by Turkey and mainly reside there, “has a problem” with the Kurdish PYD.
“Regardless of the international positions, we must admit we have a problem with the PYD and its activities on the ground,” said Hariri.
“They practice violations [on the ground] and they are linked to terrorist organisations. However civilians should not be a target under any circumstances,” Hariri added.
Hariri said the opposition is still considering whether to attend the upcoming Syrian National Congress in Sochi, which Russia has convened at the end of January.
He said the talks in Vienna will be essential to understanding whether the government is committed to any negotiations at all and whether Sochi will be worth attending.
“We spoke to the Russians and, if we take them at face value, they said they are still committed to support the Geneva Talks,” said Hariri.
“However we still haven’t received clear information about the content of Sochi. Our decision will depend on what will happen here in Vienna,” he added.
An earlier statement by the United Nations said this round of talks would focus mainly on constitutional reforms, one of the four so-called “baskets” for discussions laid out by the special envoy, which also include a transitional government, parliamentary and presidential elections and the fight against terrorism.