Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Geneva has hosted two rounds of peace talks. Today, Friday, a third round of UN-brokered talks is set to begin in the Swiss city. Sadly, the trajectory is not a positive one, with prospects for a breakthrough to end the war looking even worse than on either of the previous occasions.
The talks were delayed by several days amid uncertainty about who exactly would attend; this uncertainty continued until hours before the conference was due to begin. The night before the rescheduled start date of 29 January, the Syrian opposition said that its officials would not attend unless there were guarantees of an end to government air strikes and sieges; another member of the group said that delegates were on their way to Geneva.
This opposition group is the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, formed after a conference of political and armed factions last month. Given the horror of the regime's sieges and strikes – the barrel bombs, chemical weapons, the starvation in Madaya, to name just a few – the committee's request is hardly unreasonable. It is a measure of how fragile the whole peace process is that the US reportedly threatened the rebels with cutting off support if they did not attend on these grounds.
The stakes are high. More than 250,000 people have been killed over almost five years of war, while 11 million have been forced from their homes. In a video message to the Syrian people, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura – a man with surely one of the most difficult jobs in the world – said that the talks "cannot fail". However, he has tried to keep expectations low. The priority for this first round of talks is to explore prospects for local ceasefires, ramped up efforts against Daesh and improved humanitarian access to besieged areas. The key stumbling blocks – Assad's future, and the formation of a transitional government including the opposition – are firmly off the table. De Mistura plans to hold six months of separate talks with the two sides in the conflict, since there is not enough common ground for them to sit together. Neither side has agreed to a ceasefire of any sort.
This gradual approach is the result of past experience; at the last round of talks in Geneva, in January 2014, the two sides met, shouted at each other, and left. For any hope of a negotiated settlement, both sides must be willing to make concessions, and must be ready to stop fighting, for whatever reason. Those conditions do not exist here. Making peace is particularly difficult when neither side in a war is winning decisively; if they are roughly matched in strength, both parties think that they risk more than they gain by halting the violence. In Syria, territorial gains and battlefield victories go back and forth between government forces and rebel groups, enough for each side to think that it has a chance of victory. Talks, therefore, are taking place not because the Syrian regime or opposition are ready to sit down and discuss an end to the war, but because of international desperation and pressure.
Since the last, disastrous round of talks in Geneva, the situation has worsened, drawing in more and more international powers. A US-led coalition is carrying out anti-Daesh air strikes and, last autumn, Russia waded in too, supposedly to target Daesh as well, but in practice striking against anti-Assad rebel groups. The involvement of Russia galvanised Western efforts to restart peace talks. So too, has the refugee crisis in Europe, which has precipitated a full-scale political disaster within the EU, highlighting divisions between member states. Yet for all this urgency, there remains little common ground between backers of the opposition and backers of Assad; Russia and Iran, Assad's main supporters, for example, are still firmly on the side of the Syrian regime.
Diplomacy is a slow, laborious process, and De Mistura is right to set out a long-term plan for negotiations. The risk here is that neither side is treating the talks with sufficient seriousness, simply because they are not ready to be around the negotiating table, and that the talks simply give the illusion of progress with little hope of inching along towards a solution. The humanitarian crisis in Syria is perhaps the worst in the world, with mass starvation in blockaded areas, dizzying rates of civilian deaths and the use of barrel bombs among the horrors. Sadly, a breakthrough seemed highly unlikely in Geneva III even before the talks began. Perhaps the most we can hope for is that the foundations are laid upon which future discussions can build.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.