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Tentative diplomatic progress but the prospects remain bleak in Syria

January 23, 2014 at 6:12 am

Most regional, domestic, and international powers agree that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria – but the path to peace talks has been far from easy. In the latest development, the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council has said that they will attend international peace talks in Geneva – if certain conditions are met.


Those conditions include a guarantee that relief agencies be allowed access to areas under siege, that political prisoners – particularly women and children – are released, and that any conference should actually result in a political transition.

That last may be difficult to guarantee. Although the talks at Geneva aim to end the two and a half year conflict by establishing a transitional governing body, there are not many reasons to be optimistic about an agreement being reached. The statement from the SNC made it clear that they are sticking to their central demand: that any agreement involves the removal of Bashar al-Assad.

Throughout the first round of talks at Geneva, this was a sticking point. Just last week, Damascus said that Assad must stay in power. Buoyed by the involvement of Lebanon’s Hezbollah fighters, Assad has enjoyed months of steady gains on the battlefield and there is no indication he is willing to cede power. His ministers have repeatedly said that they will not attend peace talks in Geneva just to surrender power.

But in their statement yesterday, the SNC said that Assad must not play any role in the country’s future. Since this fundamental point remains such a source of disagreement before talks have even begun, it is difficult to see how progress will be made towards a solution that is acceptable to both sides.

Yesterday’s statement was the firmest commitment yet to peace talks from the opposition. But it also underscores the fact that the opponents to Assad are many and splintered. The statement said that a committee had been assigned to continue talks with revolutionary forces inside and outside Syria, since some rebel fighters have protested against talks. Although such a committee would make efforts to coordinate different rebel groups, it highlights the fundamentally fractured nature of the opposition to Assad. It was reported last week that the Arab League was encouraging some of these groups to seek a unified position – but thus far, this unity has not been achieved. One of the criticisms consistently levelled at the SNC has been that it is run by Syrians based abroad who are divorced from the ground reality and have little control over the rebel groups they claim to represent. While a spokesman stressed that yesterday’s statement took into consideration the concerns of frontline fighters, the fact remains that these groups are disparate and not centrally controlled.

Responding to the statement, the US State Department condoned the conditions for talks, saying: “We will continue to work closely with our international partners, including Russia, to urge the regime to take these steps and move towards convening the Geneva conference”. He did not comment on the coalition’s rejection of any role for Assad. The US and other western powers, as well as several Arab states, have all called for Assad to step down. Russia, Iran, and other supporters of the Syrian regime challenge that view. For his part, Assad has refused to talk to rebels Damascus deems to be terrorists, and has said that no-one who backs foreign intervention (political or military) in Syria can sit at the negotiating table.

So while tentative progress has been made, the prospects remain bleak. This second round of talks is being pushed for by both the US and Russia. Meanwhile, the death toll continues to rise; more than 115,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in March 2011. This ever growing body count should add some urgency to the need for some relief in the brutal conflict. Yet as a negotiated settlement continues to look as elusive as ever, it does not seem that the bloodshed in Syria will stop any time soon.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.