Syria Talks: Much ado about nothing

Joyce Karam
Joyce Karam

Joyce Karam

By : Joyce Karam

Nothing about the current Peace Talks on Syria, proposed for Monday in Geneva, is certain. They might happen but the higher likelihood is that they will be postponed. The anti-Assad opposition might or might not attend. If it attends at all, the talks themselves will not be direct, and deep differences on the way forward completely dim their prospects.

In a nutshell, U.S. Secretary John Kerry’s persistence is the only positive element around the whole process, as opposing factions trade accusations of terrorism and treason, and ground realities become increasingly detached from then diplomatic vision. Added to this, regional differences between Iran and the GCC countries plus Turkey, as well as the Russian backing of Assad, make the current exercise a mechanism to buy time and leverage until different military realities take shape.

No list, no invites

Four days before the Geneva talks, no invites have been sent yet by Envoy Staffan de Mistura, and Kerry’s meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergie Lavrov yesterday failed to produce an agreement on the opposition’s attendance. Moscow has been insisting on including Kurdish groups considered terrorist by Turkey and others who have ties to the Assad regime on the table. This has been rejected by the “Opposition Council” formed in Riyadh last month, and is threatening to scuttle the whole meeting.

Beyond the immediate effects, however, the battle over the opposition representation exposes a larger power play and is symptomatic of the proxy war ongoing in Syria. For Russia to insist on the Y.P.G participation is a signal to Turkey on who will set the rules in Geneva, and for the “opposition council” to threaten withdrawal if the in house opposition attends, it’s a redline from their backers to the West on limits of compromise in Syria.

At every turn, the Geneva process clashes with the realities from Damascus to Idlib and beyond while holding very little prospect and leverage to change them.

Joyce Karam

As Liz Sly points out in the Washington Post Russia is using its strengthened position on the ground to reframe the negotiations. Moscow’s calculus after more than hundred days of strikes in Syria, is to twist the opposition’s arm and pressure the United States into accepting the new military realities, hence leaving the regime intact and forgetting the thought of a real transition. Such a proposal builds today on a weakened Free Syrian Army, and increased fear in the West from ISIS. However, neither the United States nor the regional actors or the opposition are ready to accept it.

Transition and Militias myths

For the Assad regime, accepting Geneva I and Geneva II invitations is one thing and embracing their narrative is another. While political transition has been now talked about for four years as the path for a resolution in Syria, the regime has continuously worked towards a different end. The approach from Damascus, very early on from the uprising in 2011, was to adopt few reforms and form a unity government with the internal opposition without touching the security and political hierarchy of the regime.

This is the Russian position today as well, who while dropping hints that it could accept Assad into asylum is in reality bolstering his support and making sure that any “transition” is according to the regime’s vision, with its brand of opposition and undermines Turkey.

The Assad narrative clashes on every level with how the opposition and the rebels inside Syria view the conflict, thus limiting the room for breakthrough in Geneva. Only a real political transition with a credible exit for Assad is acceptable by the opposition, and one that brings a major restructuring for the country’s security and intelligence apparatus.

Added to the complexities surrounding Geneva is the insistence of Arab countries on militias and foreign fighters withdrawal from Syria in any final solution. That includes Hezbollah and other Iraqi militias backed by Iran and operating in Damascus and Aleppo. Easier said than done, however. If anything Hezbollah has only deepened its involvement in Syria, creating a de facto bufferzone by the Lebanese border, and making its role crucial for keeping the Assad regime and its backers afloat. It is extremely unlikely that Hezbollah will give up its role in Syria anytime soon, or accept a defeat in Qalamoun based on statements signed in Geneva.

At every turn, the Geneva process clashes with the realities from Damascus to Idlib and beyond while holding very little prospect and leverage to change them. Its occurrence or postponement is a saving face tactic to buy time and wait for the battle lines to change again inside Syria.

Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.


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