THE United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has suspended intra-Syrian talks in Geneva to end five years of bloody warfare. Mr de Mistura said on Wednesday that negotiations would be suspended for three weeks, following differences between Government and opposition delegations on the priority of humanitarian issues.
“I have been asking even before issuing the invitations that there is an immediate implementation of a humanitarian initiative, even before the talks start,” he told journalists, citing issues such as lifting sieges and providing access for humanitarian aid to all the places which are at the moment unreachable.
“I was told and reassured that they were going to take place during the talks," he said. Well, I have been hearing from the government that they had some procedural issues before talking about humanitarian side. I have been hearing from the opposition that they are urgently feeling the need for the Syrian people.”
The envoy emphasised that the suspension was only “a temporary pause” and was not the end or failure of the talks, noting that both sides insist they are interested in having the political process begin. He set the next session to take place on 25 February.
Mr de Mistura made it clear last week that he is under no illusions about the difficulties facing the resolution attempts.
“There will be a lot of posturing, we know that, a lot of walk-outs and walk-ins because a bomb has fallen or because someone has done an attack, and you will see that happening,” he said.
Sharp divisions exist between the Syrian government and opposition groups, as well as within the ranks of opponents of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Russia’s military intervention in support of the regime has added a new level of complexity.
The United States and Russia have tried to persuade most of the parties to the Syria conflict to take part in proximity talks in Geneva, which began this week. But there is a fundamental difference in outlook between the two global powers.
Up to the end of last year, it appeared that Washington and Moscow agreed broadly on a joint strategy: the government and opposition groups would accept a transition arrangement, during which a new constitution and elections would be held. Both powers seemed to embrace the concept of President Assad’s remaining only for the transition.
Since the beginning of January, however, the picture has changed. Intelligence sources say that Russian aircraft now direct nine out of ten raids on opposition groups supported by the West and its Arab allies, and only one hitting Islamic State (IS) targets.
The conclusion reached by these sources is that Moscow seeks to inflict defeat on the opposition. After that, Russia’s thinking goes, once the Damascus government is back in control again, the campaign against IS can begin.
The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in a survey last week of his country’s foreign policy, alluded to this aspect of its Syria strategy. Russian air strikes thus far, he said, had “helped to turn around the situation in that country by reducing the territory controlled by terrorists. In doing so, we were able to get a much clearer picture of what was happening there.”
In other words, Russia is clearing the territory controlled by forces opposed to the Damascus government (“terrorists”) in preparation for a campaign against IS. Russia’s backing for the Geneva process, therefore, is at direct odds with its military aims in Syria.
Although Russia supports the call for a negotiated settlement, its action on the ground appears to eliminate a significant diplomatic position for Assad opponents, including those receiving help from the US and other international partners involved in the Geneva talks.
As a spokesman for the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, Salem al-Meslet, said on Tuesday: “It is clear from the current situation that the regime and its allies — in particular, Russia — are determined to reject the UN’s efforts to implement international law.”
Furthermore, Russia’s unbridled military action of recent weeks has undermined the trust that some Arab states appeared to have had in Moscow’s declared aim of eliminating the IS threat. Jordan, for example, indicated initially that it was content to see Russia taking decisive action to defeat IS. Now, because Russian aircraft last week pulverised the southern Syrian town of Sheikh Miskeen, close to the Jordanian border, allowing pro-Assad forces to drive out opposition fighters, the Jordanian authorities have been forced to reassess Moscow’s strategy.
Complex issues related to the political shape of a future Syria may never even reach the agenda.