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