UN talks on Syria fail unmourned in Geneva
The eighth round of Geneva talks concluded in mid- December with no breakthroughs and, seemingly, no tears as well.
Other than UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, who was obviously frustrated by the total lack of progress, neither the government delegation nor that of the opposition seemed worried about the fate of the peace discussions. Both seemed to agree that the negotiations were leading nowhere but remain committed to them — on paper at least — so as not to be accused of obstructing UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
The latest round of talks, which took place November 28-December 14, failed to bring about direct talks between the two Syrian delegations. Both de Mistura and the opposition delegation submitted a 12-point road map for the future, which included giving greater autonomy to the Kurds and reforming the security and military apparatus.
The government delegation refused to present any document, asking the United Nations to dig into its archives and find a paper it had submitted four years ago to de Mistura’s predecessor Lakhdar Brahimi. It made no reference to the political process, calling instead for support of the Syrian Army “and its allies” in their war on terrorism, along with provisions to lift sanctions imposed on Syria in 2011, and halt the flow of arms from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It failed to discuss power-sharing, parliamentary elections or joint measures in counterterrorism.
The two sides did agree, however, to set up a constitutional commission to debate a Russian-proposed charter and to attend a Russia-sponsored “national dialogue conference” at Sochi, Russia, pencilled in for early 2018.
The initiative, the brainchild of Russian President Vladimir Putin, hopes to assemble more than 1,000 Syrians of all stripes and colours, mandated to sign off on an agreement reached on their behalf by Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey.
At best it would lead to the drafting of a constitution in 2018, followed by parliamentary elections. That is what Resolution 2254 says, after all, stressing “elections” without saying whether they would be presidential or parliamentary.
Moscow and Damascus insist that presidential elections won’t happen before 2021, which is when Syrian President Bashar Assad’s third term ends. They also insist that Assad be allowed to run for a fourth term and that anybody in the opposition can run against him, promising that the race will be “democratic, free and monitored by the United Nations.”
The Kremlin hopes that Sochi produces an agreement, tailor-made to fit Putin’s vision of how the Syrian endgame should look. Its clauses would then be taken to the next round of Geneva talks — as yet unscheduled — for authentication by the United Nations.
Geneva would internationalise the Sochi outcomes, making them legally binding for all sides, through the UN framework. Rather than dropping Geneva, Putin hopes to control its outcome, doing away with all talk of Transitional Government Body (TGB), which was agreed upon by the international community in 2012.
Russian lawmakers claim the TGB is history, arguing that times have changed profoundly since it was agreed upon almost six years ago. Back then, there were no Russian boots on the ground, no Islamic State (ISIS) and no Donald Trump in the White House.
Trump, who seemingly is no longer interested in regime change in Damascus, has priorities that are very different from those of Barack Obama, his predecessor who funded, armed and trained thousands of Syrian fighters through the CIA. Trump has discontinued the programme, writing it off as costly and ineffective.
His three-point agenda for Syria focuses on eradicating ISIS, which is expected to be finished completely by February, French President Emmanuel Macron has said, empowering the Kurds (already achieved in all territory east of the Euphrates River) and clipping the wings of Iran and Hezbollah in the Syrian battlefield, in anticipation of ejecting them completely.
During his meeting with Putin last November, Trump agreed to let Sochi happen — or at least he promised not to obstruct it — if the Russians promised that Iran would only attend as an observer, with no decision-making authority.
Whether the process leads to Assad’s departure or not is no longer of interest for Trump. He has seemingly surrendered completely to the Russians, letting them hammer out an endgame that is credible, sustainable and one that can sell in the international community.
Whether it is achieved in Geneva or Sochi — or through both — does not make a difference for Trump. What he cares about is seeing the Russians apply real pressure on Damascus to comply with a serious process. So far, the Syrians loyal to Assad have shown high resistance, arguing they will only start a transition when full sovereignty has been restored and all terrorist groups are eradicated, something that can take years.
Even then, their interpretation of the transition is one that takes the country from war to peace and from one constitution to another, rather than replacing one government in Damascus with another, led fully by the Syrian opposition.