Little expected of Syrian peace talks

03 March 2017

NETFLIX

Bravery: a documentary, The White Helmets, broadcast on Netflix, follows volunteers who brave falling bombs to rescue civilians who fell victim to Syria’s civil war. The film won the Academy Award for Best Short Documentary category, on Sunday

Bravery: a documentary, The White Helmets, broadcast on Netflix, follows volunteers who brave falling bombs to rescue civilians who fell victim to Syr...

THE latest UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva aimed at ending the conflict in Syria show no sign of being more successful than other failed attempts to achieve peace. “So far it’s a case only of talks about talks,” an EU diplomat at the talks said. “It’s been pretty slow.”

Neither the delegation of the Syrian government nor the frac­tured opposition seem inclined to compromise, retaining starkly dif­­ferent visions of how to end the conflict and rebuild the country. On the ground in Syria, patchy violence continues, even though a cease­fire brokered by Russia, Iran, and Turkey at the end of December is generally holding (News, 6 January). Certainly the atmosphere is not one conducive to the early return of the millions of Syrians living in tempor­ary shelters in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and elsewhere.

One significant difference be­­­tween the latest diplomatic in­­itiative and previous ones is that Russia is the key player, without the high-level United States involve­ment that was seen during the Obama presid­ency.

President Trump’s focus is on defeating the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq rather than the future shape of Syria. In this con­text, the US is considering the de­­ployment of about 5000 troops on the ground in Syria to boost the battle against IS.

Not only is the new admin­istration in Washington distancing itself from the Syrian opposition groups, which once received strong US backing, but also it has refrained on commenting on the fate of the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad. If anything, the American view ap­­pears to be close to the Russian one, that Mr Assad should stay in power during a transition period.

These recent developments, fol­low­­ing on from the Syrian army’s recapture of the opposition strong­hold in Aleppo, have demoralised opponents of the regime and led
to more splits. Against this back­ground, Islamist groups have gained in strength, and much of the fight­ing seen today is among opposition factions.

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For his part, President Assad, with the support of Russian and Ir­a­nian forces, and Shia militiamen from Lebanon and Iraq, is feeling more confident of remaining in power than he has done for several years. In recent weeks, he has stated time and again his determination to rid Syria of terrorists, by whom he means not just IS but all armed groups opposing his regime.

Given the current state of affairs in Syria itself, and the chasm of mistrust between the government and the opposition, few observers hold out hope for the latest Geneva talks. The fact that they are hap­pening is largely due to the per­severance of Russian, Iranian, and Turkish diplomats, and the patient cajoling of the UN mediator Staffan de Mistura.

Moments before the opening of the talks, opposition groups were threatening to boycott the pro­ceedings. When the two sides were finally in the same room, eyeing each other stonily, Mr de Mistura urged them to work together. He said: “I know it’s not going to be easy to end this horrible conflict and lay the foundation for a country at peace with itself, sov­ereign and united.”

Easy it certainly will not be. The likelihood is that President Assad feels that the return of the whole of Syria under government sovereignty is now achievable, no matter what the price. With the US now more interested in the defeat of IS than the fate of Damascus, and Russia determined to keep a strong pro-Moscow regime in power there, the likelihood that serious peace talks will begin does not appear to be good.

This is a grim prospect for the millions of homeless Syrians who are coping with another freezing winter. It is probable that many are resigned to not be going home before the return of the low temperatures at the end of this year.

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