Syria peace talks to resume but few expect progress
BEIRUT - UN-sponsored Syrian peace talks are set to resume in Geneva on August 12th, but the chances of an agreement are slim due to wide differences over the transition to a new government.
The negotiations have been on hold since April after the opposition delegation walked out citing bias towards the government team. After government troops completed their encirclement of the northern city of Aleppo — Syria’s largest city — in mid-July, the Syrian opposition has been left in its weakest negotiating position since talks started in January.
Negotiations, mandated in December 2015 by UN Security Council Resolution 2254, were expected to produce a “transitional period” by August. By early summer, that seemed impossible but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry appeared determined to meet the August deadline.
Major differences exist on what exactly a “transitional period” means. The Russians argue that it would be a transition from war to peace but Syrian President Bashar Assad recently said that it means moving from “one constitution to another”.
The Saudi-backed opposition, however, insists that it means the creation of a “Transitional Government Body” (TGB) as mandated by the Geneva conference of 2012. This body needs to assume full presidential powers and replace Assad in Damascus, they argue.
The government delegation made it clear that it had little room for political compromise, saying it was only willing to share cabinet posts with the opposition.
Even then, major posts, such as the portfolios of defence, interior, foreign affairs and education, were not up for negotiation. This position has been strictly vetoed by Riyadh but other backers of the opposition have been remarkably silent in recent weeks — notably Turkey, which is in turmoil following a botched coup attempt.
Turkey’s silence over the blockade of Aleppo raised eyebrows in opposition circles. They know that if Aleppo falls to the Syrian Army, the northern front will collapse and that might spell the end for their forces.
Many in the opposition suspect that a secret deal has been struck — at their expense — between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Since Russia’s military intervention last September, the opposition has lashed out against Putin, accusing him of murder and war crimes. It never imagined he would one day patch up a very icy relationship with Erdogan.
The Turkish leader’s silence over the siege of Aleppo is seen as a green light for the Russians to retake the ancient city.
The price for abandoning Turkish ambitions there and Turkish-backed fighters in the vicinity of Aleppo will be Russian guarantees that a Kurdish state will never emerge on Turkey’s border with Syria.
If the Turks get that, they will look the other way as Russian warplanes strike at Turkish proxies such as Ahrar al-Sham in northern Syria, accusing its members of being agents of al-Qaeda on the Syrian battlefield.
In exchange for Turkey’s silence over Aleppo, the Russians have been either neutral or encouraging Erdogan’s crackdown after the abortive coup attempt, unlike European countries and the United States, which have been extremely critical of the Turkish leader.
The more they harangue him on human rights, the closer he inches towards the Kremlin at the expense, of course, of Syria’s rebels.
When the talks collapsed four months ago, the two top opposition negotiators resigned, which was music to the ears of Damascus and Moscow.
The top opposition negotiator, Mohammed Alloush, was commander of Jaysh al-Islam, a militia embedded in the Damascus suburbs and bankrolled by Saudi Arabia since 2012, while the delegation chief was Asaad al-Zoubi, an officer who defected from the Syrian Army.
Removing them from the talks had been a long-standing Russian demand, claiming that both men represent “terrorist groups”. Reciprocating, Moscow will likely block the participation of Syrian Kurds in the next round of talks to please Erdogan.
What is on the table is a Russian proposal to appoint four vice-presidents from the opposition and to give them ten out of 30 seats in a Syrian cabinet agreed by Assad.
The opposition must agree on an agenda with priorities that match those of the Russians. They cannot insist on Assad’s departure as a starting point for the talks — neither Russia nor Iran nor Syria will allow it.