SYRIAN opposition groups, in Geneva this week for the latest round of UN-sponsored peace talks, say that they are frustrated by the apparent unwillingness of President Trump’s administration to involve itself in diplomatic efforts to end the war in Syria. During the Obama presidency, the then Secretary of State, John Kerry, worked to bring all sides to the negotiating table.
While the United States is continuing its military campaign against Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, senior American officials have been absent from the past two rounds of Syrian peace talks. The new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is focused on other international issues. As a result, Russia is now the sole most important power both on the ground in Syria.
A negotiator, Bassma Kodmani, said that the absence of the US was giving Iranian militias a free hand in Syria. “I’m hoping”, she said, “that in the next two or three months . . . we will have a clear US policy that sees the obvious — which is that this country cannot be put back together if the Iran-led militias remain.”
Opposition groups backed by the West are also frustrated by the West’s refusal to give them sufficient military support to fight not just the Syrian army, but also radical jihadist groups. “The day the international community gives us anything to work with,” Ms Kodmani said, “believe me, the opposition will immediately turn against all the extremists and expel them from their areas.”
A European diplomat in Syria acknowledged the frustration expressed by opposition leaders. He agreed that the West had lacked a clear strategy towards Syria. “Russian interests in Syria are much stronger than our willingness to get involved,” he said.
At present, the diplomat continued, “there is no sign that Moscow is putting pressure on [President Bashar] al-Assad to stand down” as opposition groups insist he must. Russia was keeping the Geneva talks alive “to buy time for the regime and its backers to defeat the rebels, and to rub the noses of Western governments in the ground for our failures”.
Against this background it was not surprising, perhaps, that the UN envoy Staffan de Mistura stated bluntly at the start of the latest Geneva talks that “I am not expecting miracles; I am not expecting breakthroughs.”
Short of a miracle, though, it is hard to see how this immensely complicated and unsparingly brutal conflict, now in its seventh year, can be brought to an end.