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An end to regime atrocities is needed to pave the way for peace talks

After several delays, the new round of Syria peace talks began in Geneva on Friday. So far, none of the parties involved in the talks have expressed optimism about a positive outcome. The delegation from the Syrian opposition did not attend the first day in any case, stating that it would not take part in the conference without the approval of its preconditions. The delegation changed its position, however, and arrived for the second day of the talks.

On Sunday, the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC), threatened to pull out of the UN-brokered talks if the regime did not agree to end the starvation of civilians, stop the bombing campaign and release political prisoners. “We want the peace talks to work,” explained spokesperson Saleh Meslet to Al-Jazeerah, “but there is no seriousness on the part of the regime.” He said that his group made its conditions for participating in the negotiations clear to the UN. “If we see the implementation of these demands, including trucks of aid being allowed into besieged areas, we will consider this as a sign of goodwill.”

The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said earlier that the Geneva III sessions would involve “proximity talks” in which representatives of the opposition and the regime gather separately, delaying face-to-face meetings until later in the negotiation process. He held preliminary meetings with the Damascus delegation on Friday and with the opposition delegation on Sunday. His office said that the talks will resume on Monday with de Mistura again holding separate meetings with the regime and opposition.

Meanwhile, the head of the regime delegation, Bashar Al-Ja’afari, told reporters that they are in Geneva to fight “terrorism”, which is “the cause” of the dire situation in Syria. “We will not negotiate with terrorists and we will not deal with them,” he pointed out. “This is why de Mistura insisted on indirect talks.”

The Geneva III talks are the result of meetings held in Vienna last October between regional and international interlocutors, which had the objective of orchestrating a solution to the five-year war in Syria. The talks are also based on the June 2012 Geneva Communiqué of the Action Group on Syria that called for political transition in the country. The Assad regime, however, remains firm that it is present in Geneva for discussions only, not for negotiating a transition of power.

The talks were initially delayed due to international disputes over who would represent the Syrian opposition. Until recently, the opposition delegation was represented by several different opposition groups. These groups met in Riyadh last December and formed the HNC, which is backed by Saudi Arabia and the US. While not all opposition groups from Syria are part of the committee, it is far more representative than any previous delegation.

In response to the formation of the HNC, Russia called for a broader opposition delegation, with the aim of infiltrating the HNC’s ranks with more Assad-friendly opposition figures. This suggestion was opposed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the US. De Mistura responded to the pressure from Russia and invited multiple individuals, including those suggested by Moscow, as “advisors” involved in the negotiations.

According to the UN envoy, this round of talks will be different from the two previous — and failed — rounds in 2012 and 2014. On 25 January, he clarified that he is not creating a negotiation process like the Geneva II model, noting that the talks would be held in separate rooms simultaneously, with no expectation of an immediate plan for political transition.

He envisions Geneva III to be a six-month long series of talks to reach a ceasefire, followed by negotiations for political settlement to the war. UN mediators will be present at each delegation’s independent discussion of proposals, in order to identify common ground between the opposing sides.

Syria expert Aron Lund, the editor of the Carnegie Endowment’s blog Syria in Crisis, explained the intended process: “It is a structure that will initially look more like a collection of high-profile focus groups than a frank negotiation between warring parties, but hopefully it can allow de Mistura to seek progress where progress is possible and leave the logjams for later.”

This structure, however, demonstrates weakness on the part of the UN and an inability to address the points of disagreements between the parties, namely the fate of President Bashar Al-Assad and the assembling of a potential transition government. The process is drawn out unnecessarily, and it is unlikely that the preliminary talks will develop into productive negotiations, given the rapid deterioration of the situation on the ground in Syria.

The vague framework assumed by de Mistura creates a dangerous environment in which the Assad regime will be able to buy more time to expand militarily in Syria. Previous negotiations have made it clear that the regime has no interest in the peace process, especially with increasing support from Iran and the Russian air and ground campaign against Syria’s rebels. With Russian and Iranian support and minimal international pressure, Assad is hopeful that he can win the battle by force, and so has no real reason to negotiate the transfer of power.

Moscow has helped the regime tremendously by changing the international community’s attitude towards addressing the issue of the atrocities committed by government forces. Since the start of its military campaign three months ago, Russian influence in Syria has increased dramatically. Moscow now has a role in dictating the regime’s battle on the ground. In addition, Western actors have been forced to acknowledge Moscow’s position in facilitating any resolution to the conflict.

In all previous attempts for peace, the Damascus regime was identified as the major reason for failure. It refuses to end its military operations and the killing of civilians, which makes it impossible for the opposition to negotiate.

On the first day of the latest Geneva talks, Assad’s forces conducted raids targeting an internally displaced person’s camp in northern Latakia. The barbaric use of barrel bombs also continues, with government helicopters dropping over 66 on south-west Damascus on Sunday. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, hundreds of people were killed or wounded.

The Geneva III peace talks, in the current format, are ambiguous and lack the power to impose any outcome on the parties involved in the brutal war. Major international pressure on Assad, both military and political, must precede any possibility of a peace deal in Syria; regime atrocities have to end. The complexity of the conflict, and the interests of foreign powers, must be addressed to form an agreeable compromise and balance of power on the ground in Syria. Peace has to be pushed as the only hope for survival. Only then could negotiations towards a transition for Syria’s rebuilding truly begin.

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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.

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