Syria’s uphill battle to peace

Friday 29/01/2016
Even de Mistura ap­peared to play down expectations

BEIRUT - While the United States and Russia carry out scores of air strikes and fight­ing rages on the ground in Syria, the United Nations is struggling to launch its third ma­jor diplomatic offensive to end a 5-year-old war in Syria that imperils the entire Middle East.

The gathering in Geneva, sched­uled for January 29th, is the result of a whirlwind of last-minute diplo­macy by US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura to get all sides to jettison preconditions and endless wran­gling over who should attend.

The talks were scheduled to start on January 25th but were pushed back because of deep differences over who would represent the op­position forces and due to disagree­ments on other key issues.

These are so profound that initial rounds will be “proximity talks”, with representatives of President Bashar Assad’s Damascus regime and many of the fractious rebel groups battling to bring him down in separate rooms with negotiators shuttling between them.

Disagreement continues over who will attend the talks, which de Mistura — the third UN envoy on Syria since this perplexing war be­gan — said are part of an 18-month UN plan for a political transition in Syria.

UN-backed peace efforts in 2012 and 2014 collapsed and there seems to be little real prospect of a nego­tiated settlement to end a war in which an estimated 260,000 people have died.

Even de Mistura, a seasoned Swiss-Italian veteran of regional flashpoints who headed UN mis­sions in Iraq and Afghanistan, ap­peared to play down expectations.

“It will be uphill all the way,” he cautioned. “There will be a lot of posturing and walkouts. We should not be impressed or depressed. The important thing is to keep up the momentum.”

The complexities are legion. Syria has become a proxy battleground for competing powers — the United States and Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the autonomy-seeking Kurds — who all have di­vergent strategic imperatives in the Middle East and beyond. The Is­lamic State’s drive to establish a ca­liphate in Syria and Iraq adds an ex­plosive dimension to the equation.

Within Syria itself, the war and the decades of often brutal rule by the Assad dynasty that led to it have fractured the country and its com­peting sects and ethnic groupings.

Long-smouldering hatreds ig­nited by the violence will be im­mensely difficult to smother. The recent sharpening of the regional power struggle between Riyadh and Tehran has greatly complicated matters. The Russian military incur­sion, which changed the course of the war in favour of the Damascus regime, will affect the negotiations.

Despite more than a quarter of a million deaths over the last five years, the Syrian regime seems to believe the country’s future can be decided on the battlefield, thanks to Russian firepower, and is in no hur­ry to make concessions. “We’re not going to give today what we have not given over the last five years,” declared Hilal al-Hilal, a senior fig­ure in Assad’s ruling Ba’ath Party.