A short step in a long-term roadmap

Monday, 2017-02-27 18:32:02
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The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, (R) attends Geneva peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition on February 25, 2017.
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NDO—After a 10-month hiatus, talks between the Syrian government and rebel factions officially resumed in Geneva, Switzerland with the United Nations as an intermediary. The negotiations are taking place as the conflict on the ground has undergone numerous transformations with adjustments made to the military strategies of both Russia and the United States; however, the viewpoints of these two opposition parties in the Middle Eastern country seemed to remain at a “standstill.” There has yet to be any sign indicating the “light at the end of the tunnel” ignited in the arduous roadmap to seek a solution to the Syrian crisis.

For the first time in three years, the two sides in the Syrian frontline came “face to face” at the opening ceremony for the talks to listen to the call promoting cooperation from the UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. As a mediator, Mistura handed over a procedural working document to each party, aiming to design negotiations to end the six-year conflict, following his bilateral meeting with each side. The UN diplomat called on opposition factions in Syria to take historic responsibility in an effort to put an end to the conflict, explaining that with over 300,000 people deprived of their livelihoods and millions of displaced families, the Syrian civil war needs to come to an end and must not see any more bloodshed. However, Mistura also admitted that he did not expect miracles in this round of negotiations, as there were so many challenges ahead. The mission of bringing the parties face to face at the negotiating table has yet to be performed as expected.

Since April 2016, when representatives of the rival factions in Syria last met in Geneva, the position of the rebels have dropped significantly with Syrian government forces seizing control of more territories and claiming victories on many important fronts, especially in the northern province of Aleppo. In December 2016, under the framework of negotiations on Syria taking place in Astana, Kazakhstan, the trio of Russia, Iran and Turkey achieved a ceasefire for Syria. However, fighting continues to threaten to break every effort of the international community. This negotiation round took place as a result of the diplomatic chain between Russia, Iran and Turkey as well as the efforts to put aside disagreements for cooperation between Russia and the US, the two powers said to control the game on the “Syrian chessboard.”

Syrian rebels participated in the peace talks at a time when they were both militarily and diplomatically weak. Their forces had suffered a lot of defeats at the hands of government troops on the battlefield in while reports said that rebel factions were being abandoned as Washington reconsidered its policy on Syria under President Donald Trump. The insurgents also found that their two biggest backers, the US and Turkey, were showing signs of changing their stances, raising concerns that their demand for President Bashar al-Assad’s departure would not be listened to. The administration of President Trump once stated that it would review all matters concerning US involvement in Syria, while Turkey said that it no longer pursued a solution to this conflict. However, coming to the talks, the rebels still showed an unyielding attitude focusing on the key issue of the political future of President Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, the Damascus government did not want to discuss this issue. Promoting negotiations on the political transition process was still the basis for the peace talks patronised by the UN. Discussions focused on the issue of establishing a nonsectarian and reliable polity with the participation of the parties, as well as the process of drafting a new constitution and organising free and fair elections. However, the political transition according to the claims of the rebels meant President al-Assad would relinquish power, while the Syrian government always insisted that the fate of President al-Assad was not up for discussion in negotiations.

The strategic adjustment of the new US administration on Syrian issues means that Washington will loosen some restrictions which had been launched under President Barack Obama on a number of US troops joining the campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). The Trump administration also wants to become Russia’s partner in the fight against terrorists in Syria. If this becomes reality, all developments surrounding the civil war in Syria will be rotated, pushing the rebels into a stalemate. The US-backed Syrian rebel factions are currently being confused by the risk of a “handshake” between Russia and the US, as Moscow and Washington inherently support two rival factions in the Middle Eastern country. The Trump administration’s new “incomprehensible” policy on Syria goes against the predecessor’s administration, triggering concern in US political circles about the risk of reducing the US influence in the Middle East and possibly giving Russia the upper hand in the Syrian crisis.

Despite limited expectations for the outcomes of the negotiations between rival Syrian factions in Geneva, diplomats consider this the start of a prolonged negotiation process in the time ahead. These talks are a small step forward on the arduous road towards opening the door to peace in Syria while the game in this Middle Eastern country is indeed in the hands of the great powers.