A new phase of political negotiations were supposed to start in Geneva today, 25 January, between representatives of the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime, as part of the UN-brokered peace talks which aim to bring the nearly five-year-old war to an end. The talks, however, were postponed while international powers make their minds up about who will represent whom and how to make the process effective. Some unconfirmed reports suggest that the talks may be start on Tuesday or Wednesday.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Saturday that he is confident that the peace talks will go ahead. He had noted earlier that Geneva would involve “proximity talks” in which representatives of the opposition and the regime will gather separately and will not meet face-to-face until later in the week.
The reason for the delay, explained UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, was the dispute between foreign powers concerning who would be in the opposition delegation. As a result, the UN has paused the issuing of invitations until the matter is resolved. However, this dispute between major international powers, mainly the US and Russia, is only one of the obstacles facing the peace process.
The talks are the result of a meeting in Vienna between regional and international stakeholders in October last year, which aimed to overcome differences and orchestrate a solution to the war in Syria. It came in the wake of Russia’s military intervention in support of the Assad regime. As the process developed, Russia gained a significant role in Syria, which Western powers had to acknowledge and incorporate in order to facilitate an agreement. It has been clear that Russia’s intervention in Syria was not to fight terrorism, as claimed officially, but to maintain the status quo at a point when Assad’s forces were facing unprecedented defeats by the rebels.
Unlike its official position as a peace broker between Syria’s conflicting parties, Russia continues to work towards strengthening one side and manipulating the other. Moscow is presently calling for a broader opposition delegation in Geneva to include individuals it supports. They include people like Qadri Jamil of the Damascus-based Popular Will Party, who are deemed by the exiled opposition to be puppets supervised by the regime.
The exiled opposition, represented by the Saudi-backed Syria Supreme Commission for Negotiations, which was formed in Riyadh last month from various opposition groups, said that its delegation would not attend the talks if any third parties take part, a reference to the Moscow-backed individuals.
At this point, though, the Syrian opposition is facing tremendous international pressure to attend Geneva III, despite being both unprepared and possibly forced to accept outlandish offers. Moreover, if Russia succeeds in widening the membership of the delegation, then key disagreements will prevail among the opposition ranks during negotiations with the Assad representatives; this would give credence to the official Damascus narrative that the opposition is not ready to be part of a transitional government.
Nevertheless, any hypothetical talks would not hold out any hope for a positive outcome as long as the Assad regime remains the least interested in peace. During earlier rounds of negotiations in 2012, when the situation was much less complex, the talks failed completely simply because the regime refused to discuss any transitional plan for the war-torn country. Now with Assad being reinforced militarily (and politically) by Russia, alongside Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the regime believes that there is no need for negotiations.
In any war or conflict, common sense dictates that any or all conflicting parties have to compromise, or at least acknowledge the necessity to do so, on issues related to the core of the dispute in order to reach an agreement. The main thing is that the objective must be to do this. In the Syrian situation, that vital factor is not even close to being part of the equation.
If the world has learned one thing from the war in Syria, it is that Assad and his regime will neither give up power nor share it as long as they have even the slightest hope of winning through brute force. Since Assad has not yet lost that hope, the talks with the regime face having no actual outcome.
Negotiations are part of a process that contains certain stages which are shaped and determined by the realities of the conflict. The current reality in Syria is that the Assad regime has not been pressured enough to accept negotiating towards a transition or to agree to make concessions. Furthermore, the fate of President Bashar Al-Assad remains the main obstacle, as the regime considers that non-negotiable.
On the day that the opposition named its delegation to Geneva, the security services in Damascus issued arrest warrants for many Syrian opposition figures, including the three main members of the opposition delegation. The regime has thus demonstrated its unwillingness to negotiate with the opposition; Assad’s media outlets have been reporting this for the past week, with the government describing the Geneva III conference as “discussions” and not “negotiations”; the regime’s unchanging mentality is very obvious.
Negotiating a peace deal with Assad is thus likely to be fruitless, at this stage at least, simply because the regime has no need for one. Given the current circumstances, war is a winning card for Assad and his forces, especially with the substantial military aid received from Russia and the additional aid expected to pour in from an Iranian government newly-removed from the sanctions list.
Abdulrahman al-Masri is an independent journalist based in Canada. Follow him on Twitter @AbdulrhmanMasri.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.