Russia calls the shots at Syria talks but peace is no closer

Sunday 02/04/2017
Bad soap opera. UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura arrives at a meeting with Syria’s government delegation in Geneva, on March 25th. (Reuters)

Beirut - The fifth round of UN-man­dated Syria talks started in Geneva on March 23rd and were expected to last until the first week of April. The more the talks drag on, the lower their ratings become and, just like any bad soap opera, they will one day be off the air.

Within Syria, state-run television gave the talks only passing men­tion, unlike earlier sessions, which were big news. The armed opposi­tion scoffs at them, calling them a waste of time, and the politicians cry foul, claiming that nothing will come out of the talks as long as Mos­cow insists on dropping all mention of the fate of Syria’s president.

On a few points, however, Gene­va V is different from other rounds, which began in 2012. For starters, the Americans are almost totally and hauntingly absent from the talks, represented by a deputy assistant secretary of State rather than his boss, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Tillerson deliberately skipped both Geneva IV and Geneva V, giv­ing Russian Deputy Foreign Min­ister Gennady Gatilov complete charge of the negotiations. With no Americans to worry about, Russia insists on a low ceiling for Geneva V.

Another novelty is that this will be the last round for the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who will step down in April after failing to end the carnage. The Rus­sians are glad to see him go, claim­ing he sided with the United States. This means de Mistura will be pas­sive during Geneva V before leaving empty-handed.

Four points are being discussed by the Syrian negotiators in Ge­neva. One is the creation of an ex­panded cabinet of national unity, which, in theory, would be divided between the Assad regime, the op­position and independent techno­crats, giving ten chairs to each.

The only opposition that the Rus­sians are willing to accept are Mos­cow-sanctioned figures, who are generally dismissed by the radicals as “regime-friendly” or “regime-made”. Damascus strongly vetoes defectors and members of the Sau­di-backed High Negotiations Com­mittee (HNC).

All talk of a Transitional Govern­ment Body (TGB), as mandated by Geneva I in 2012, has seemingly vanished, although the HNC would love to see it emerge and take all of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s powers. However, neither Moscow nor Tehran will hear of it.

The second issue is the discus­sion of a Russian-authored consti­tution presented to the Syrian ne­gotiators at Geneva III. It created an uproar in Syrian nationalist circles, dismissed even by diehard regime loyalists as “condescending and in­sulting” because it was written in Moscow, not Damascus.

The constitution calls for the creation of two houses of parlia­ment, breaking the 99-year-old mo­nopoly that Damascus has had over other Syrian cities since the country gained its independence at the end of the first world war.

It gives these faraway towns and villages a say in their own inter­nal affairs, a share of the country’s wealth and the right to help ad­minister and rule their territories — something that Damascus curtly rejects.

The proposed Russian constitu­tion also suggests empowering the executive and legislative branches, at the expense of the Syrian presi­dency.

Third, Geneva V is discussing early elections as mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 2254 but that cannot be done unless a cabinet is formed and a new consti­tution introduced.

These three components make up what is known as the transition period.

The opposition insists that the transition needs to be from regime to opposition rule; Moscow’s in­terpretation has been a transition from one constitution to another, from war to peace and from one-party rule to a power-sharing for­mula that puts an end to 54 years of Ba’athist rule.

Finally, the negotiators are dis­cussing counterterrorism measures that include prioritising the battles against the Islamic State (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria.

This fourth point is a novelty and was not on the table during previ­ous rounds of the Geneva talks. It was imposed by the Russians at Geneva IV, in very vague terms, so that Moscow can, when needed, strike out at whoever is giving it a headache on the Syrian battlefield, accusing them — rightfully or not — of being agents of ISIS or al-Nusra.

This is not how the Geneva pro­cess started five years ago. Back then no Syrians were present and stakeholders decided on their be­half, calling for Assad’s immediate departure as a prelude to any politi­cal settlement.

The war turned dramatically in Assad’s favour after he invited the Russians to step in two years ago shortly after the emergence of ISIS. The government negotiators got a strong upper hand as towns and cit­ies lost in the pre-Russian era were recaptured.

Because of late March attacks in Damascus and Hama, led by Turk­ish-backed rebels, there were re­newed hopes that the government team would bend on issues it had previously refused to discuss. That, thanks to Russian support, did not happen. The attacks were repelled at a very high cost and Assad’s ne­gotiators marched off to Geneva as defiant as ever.