January 28, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Fragile Hope for Syria

• After a delay, talks to address the conflict in Syria are set to start in Geneva on Friday, January 29

• The talks may be delayed again, or end quickly, as they face difficulties and disagreements in every direction

• Even the list of participants remains in doubt, and the agenda falls well short of addressing the key issue of a transitional process

• While the talks may provide some symbolic purpose in showing a small measure of agreement on the need to end the fighting, they are more likely to illustrate how distant peace remains.


On Tuesday, January 26, Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, sent out invitations to a round of indirect talks in Geneva between the Assad regime and selected opposition groups. De Mistura said that the talks, which are due to start on Friday, may last six months—an optimistic view. They are likely to collapse far sooner, if they begin at all.

In 2011, when the Syrian civil war began, there was some hope that a solution could emerge locally, with limited outside intervention. Almost five years later, Syria has become mired in a climate of international rivalries and regional tensions that make a purely local solution unthinkable. The opposition itself has become more complex too, ranging from local militias to transnational extremists, all deeply divided in their key objectives. 

The UN Security Council and other parties involved in arranging the talks agree that terrorist groups should not be invited. The so-called Islamic State and its al-Qaeda cousinJabhat al-Nusra, did not receive an invitation to Geneva, and were never on the list, even though they represent the two strongest groups opposed to the restoration of Bashar al-Assad as the leader of a reunited Syria. Beyond those two obvious candidates, however, there is no agreement as to what ‘terrorist’ means; there is no group fighting in Syria that is not regarded by one side or the other as terrorist. Jordan has been given the task of deciding where to draw the line between terrorist and opposition, but even if it is able to come up with a sensible formula, it will likely not be accepted. 

This debate extends also to the Kurds. So far there has been no invitation sent to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish group supported by the United States, but which Turkey has vowed never to accept as a legitimate party to the talks—if only because of its close alliance with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Russia, still mired in its spat with Turkey following the downing of its SU-24 bomber in November 2015, argues for the inclusion of the PYD, but opposes other groups supported by the United States. The opposition groups gathered by Saudi Arabia under the umbrella of the High Negotiations Committee have yet to decide whether or not to attend the talks; they are still pondering preconditions to their attendance, such as the release of prisoners and humanitarian access to starving civilians. They also seek clarification as to who else will be there.

The winner in all this is inarguably Assad. He has already seen off an attempt by the U.S. to make his departure the starting point of a transitional process, and, although Russia denies it, he is widely believed to have angrily refused a Russian suggestion that he prepare to step down. He knows that Russia is firmly trapped into supporting him, as any hint of political or military failure in Syria would cause considerable embarrassment to President Putin. But it is only now, after four months of massive military intervention by Russia, that Syrian government troops have begun to achieve some momentum, capturing over the last two weeks three important rebel-held towns in the northwest and south of the country. 

Even if the talks do start tomorrow, there will be no early relief for the 400,000 people under siege in towns and villages within Syria, nor for the more than 11 million people displaced from their homes, including over 4 million refugees. Progress will depend on facts on the ground, not arguments in Geneva, and none of the three priorities set for the talks—securing a ceasefire, fighting the Islamic State, and broadening humanitarian assistance—is of critical concern to Assad or other key participants in the war. Syria’s tragedy is likely to continue until there has been a decisive military victory, and probably even beyond that. It may be true, as De Mistura has claimed, that all parties seek a political solution, but agreement on what a solution might look like has possibly never been further away.


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