Hopes rise in Geneva talks after Russia’s move

Friday 18/03/2016
Main sticking point re­mains fate of Assad

GENEVA - Long-awaited peace talks to end the Syrian conflict are under way in Geneva, with many hoping that the op­posing sides will be able to reach a political solution to end the five-year conflict, particularly after Moscow announced the surprise withdrawal of military personnel and warplanes from the country.
Russian President Vladimir Putin made the shock announcement on March 14th, the first day of talks, with some warplanes leaving Hamim airbase, near Latakia, less than 24 hours later. Putin said that Russia’s objectives in Syria had been “generally accomplished” after more than five months of bombing raids, with some analysts viewing the decision, and particularly its timing, as part of a Russian attempt to push government negotiators to reach an agreement with the opposition.
“If the Russians are now really putting pressure on the Assad gov­ernment, then we can make quick progress in the talks. But that re­quires another good brave decision from Putin and that is to be on the side of the Syrian people,” Syrian opposition spokesman Salim al- Muslet said.
The Syrian opposition cautiously welcomed the Russian announce­ment, but called for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the coun­try. Iranian troops and Iran-backed Iraqi and Lebanese militias are also fighting in Syria alongside Assad’s troops. Tehran publicly welcomed the Russian move but gave no in­dication that it intended to follow suit.
The Syrian opposition, repre­sented by the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), and the gov­ernment delegation, led by Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar al-Jaafari, have now both submitted their settlement propos­als to UN envoy Staffan de Mistura. The aim of the negotiations is to reach a framework on a transition­al government, as well as devise a road map for the drafting of a new constitution and parliamentary and presidential elections in 18 months.
“We will do everything that we can [during the negotiations] to serve the Syrian people. We won’t be a pushover during these nego­tiations. We will fulfil the respon­sibility that the Syrian people have placed on us,” al-Muslet, official spokesman for the HNC, said at the start of negotiations.
But the main sticking point re­mains the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad, with the HNC refus­ing to countenance his remaining in power during the transitional period, and government officials describing Assad’s departure as a “red line”.
Speaking before the start of talks, chief HNC negotiator Mohammed Alloush said: “We believe that the transitional period should start with the fall or death of Assad. It cannot start with the presence of the regime or the head of the re­gime still in power.”
The HNC and Assad delegations are not sitting at the same negotiat­ing table, with talks being conduct­ed in “proximity” and UN officials shuttling between the two sides. Negotiations are scheduled to con­tinue until the end of the month, with de Mistura seeking to bridge the divide and move the opposing sides from their all-or-nothing posi­tions.
Assad’s role, if any, in a transi­tional government will become a major focus as talks progress, and the two delegations will ultimately need to reach an agreement on his fate. The fear is that the talks could break down if the two sides cannot reach a compromise.
Despite the lack of direct negotia­tions, hopes are high that they can succeed where others have failed, particularly after Russia’s mili­tary withdrawal, which seemingly weakens the Assad delegation’s hand.
Russia’s decision has placed As­sad “under pressure to finally seri­ously negotiate a peaceful political transition in Geneva that would ensure the continuation of a Syr­ian state,” German Foreign Minis­ter Frank-Walter Steinmeier said. De Mistura welcomed Putin’s an­nouncement, describing the Rus­sian withdrawal as a “significant development” towards revolving the crisis.
“Assad can shape the future constitution, but Russia knows he has no choice but to stand aside at some point; otherwise there will be stalemate,” a senior diplomat at the Geneva peace talks told the UK’s Guardian newspaper.
“The Russians have strengthened Assad’s position enough so he can come to the negotiating table closer to a state of equilibrium, but they want this war to come to an end. They are not inextricably bound up with him, so long as they main­tain their influence”, the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonym­ity, said.
This round of talks is sched­uled to conclude at the end of the month. They will then meet with their respective interest groups and seek a mandate for further talks.
The next round of talks, if they do go ahead, could even see direct ne­gotiations between the opposition and government after al-Muslet said the HNC was not against them. “As long as we have a solution, as long as we have relief for our peo­ple, we don’t mind what form the negotiation is,” the HNC spokes­man said.