UN's Syria envoy pledges 'serious try' as peace talks resume in Geneva

UN talks resume in Geneva with Russia asking the Syrian air force to respect the ceasefire but little prospect of departure for Assad

The UN special envoy to Syria has said he will give the latest round of peace talks that resumed in Geneva on Thursday “a serious try”, but cautioned against talking about a breakthrough in attempts to end the six-year civil war.

Staffan de Mistura convened his first morning meeting with the delegation of the Syrian government. He was expected to meet opposition figures later in the day.

In what was clearly designed as a goodwill gesture, Russia on Wednesday formally requested the Syrian air force “to silence the skies in the areas touched by the ceasefire” – a request that leaves open the question of what the Syrian air force was doing by bombing in ceasefire areas in the first place.

Speaking on Wednesday, De Mistura gave no clues as to the precise format of the talks or their duration, but it is likely that the Syrian government and the opposition High Negotiations Committee will once again take separate rooms, with UN officials shuttling between them in an effort to find common ground.

“We are not having any excessive expectations, let’s be frank,” De Mistura said at a press conference. He said he hoped to maintain momentum and that neither side would try to disrupt the talks by provoking the other. “I think it will be worthwhile. We are going to give it a serious try.”

The geopolitical landscape has been recast since De Mistura brought the warring sides together in the same Swiss city last year. Back in February 2016 there was a degree of quiet optimism in western diplomatic circles that Russia would be ready to deliver a conciliatory Syrian government delegation to the talks after Vladimir Putin’s military intervention on the regime’s side.

Instead, confronted by a collapsing ceasefire and an implacable Syrian delegation unwilling to discuss any transition away from President Bashar al-Assad, De Mistura had to abandon the talks after two fruitless sessions. A bland summary of the points of agreement between the two sides, produced by De Mistura, underscored how little progress the diplomat had made.

Since then, little has happened on the ground, or among the circling constellation of national actors, to suggest that the Syrian government delegation, led by the austere Bashar Jaafari, has reached Geneva believing it needs to be any more flexible than it was in 2016.

Eastern Aleppo has fallen from opposition control, and many of the rebel groups have subsequently collapsed into internal bloodletting mergers, splits and kidnappings. When Assad now talks of regaining every inch of Syrian territory from the terrorists, he no longer sounds totally deluded, even if he is heavily dependent on Iranian-backed militia to achieve this.

Robert Ford, the former US ambassador to Syria, captured the change in the landscape, saying: “A year or two ago, Assad’s position seemed more tenuous. I don’t think anyone now thinks he is going to be forced out of office.”

Turkey – once the chief sponsor of the Syrian opposition and now with its troops fighting Islamic State in the north – has recalibrated its foreign policy in the aftermath of July’s attempted coup, gradually shifting towards cooperation with Russia in Syria. Ankara’s prime concern appears to be preventing the Kurds from expanding their footprint in northern Syria.

In the west there is a vacuum. Donald Trump’s election in the US has confirmed the suspension of military support for the Syrian opposition that was pursued by his predecessor, Barack Obama, but little else is known.

De Mistura said he was not complaining about the policy absence. “In all fairness, any administration needs some time before devising a new strategy,” he said, adding that he knew the US was interested in fighting Isis. In his only intervention, Trump has spoken of the need for safe zones funded by the Gulf states, explaining brutally, “They have nothing but money.” The Sunni Gulf states say little, but cling to the belief that Trump will prove to be a true enemy of Iran.

Boris Johnson, the UK’s foreign secretary, told MPs on Tuesday that the US was considering a policy “in which the Russians and the Iranians are separated in their interests, and we move towards a political solution and a transition away from the barbarism of the Assad regime”. If this is true, no one in the administration has yet expressed this view publicly.

For the moment, the diplomatic initiative has been handed to Iran, Turkey and Russia, which have held two meetings in Astana, Kazakhstan. Indeed, De Mistura has only just managed, with Turkish help, to prevent Russia from taking over the peace talks from the UN.

At the same time the military balance within the Syrian opposition has changed. Jihadi forces organised in a new coalition, the Organisation for the Liberation of the Levant (HTS), have become more powerful, attracting factions from HTS’s main rival, Ahrar al-Sham. The Free Syrian Army is still operating, but on the back foot.

“The opposition should understand that there are new realities on the ground in Syria and international changes. It is not like it was in 2011,” the pro-Assad Syrian parliamentarian Sharif Shehadeh said on Wednesday. “The circumstances, the [battlefield] has changed, the political situation has changed, so they need to go with a mindset of participation, not exclusion.”

Staffan de Mistura
Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s special envoy for Syria: ‘We are not having any excessive expectations.’ Photograph: Martial Trezzini/EPA

The temptation for Trump and for Russia is to let military events play out on the ground, culminating in the total defeat of the opposition by Assad, who would stay in power. Trump’s allies in Europe, such as Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s Front National, have backed keeping Assad in charge. Attention would then be solely focused on dislodging Isis from Raqqa, for which the US is already thinking of dispatching more special forces.

But De Mistura and many western diplomats still argue that there can be no permanent peace in Syria without political agreement over its systems of governance and free elections.

There is also the issue of Assad’s moral culpability. A series of reports published in the last fortnight on the murder of political detainees in his prisons, the methods used to raze Aleppo and the use of chemical weapons make Assad’s indefinite retention of power hard to contemplate. It would also leave Iran entrenched in Syria, something Israel and Trump would abhor. Equally, the billions the EU has put aside to help reconstruct the country may not be released if there is no political agreement.

De Mistura insisted that he will reject any preconditions for Thursday’s talks, saying the purpose was to develop a new, credible, inclusive and non-sectarian system of governance, a process for free and fair elections, and a new constitution. He insisted that only the Syrian people could write a constitution – a possible reference to a lengthy draft constitution prepared by Russia.

De Mistura’s formula did not explicitly call for a political transition, code in the talks for a requirement that Assad stand down at some fixed point. Momentum on the political track was key, he said, to get ahead of any spoilers: “Don’t be surprised if there are rhetorical, dismissive and aggressive statements. It is what you should expect. Wait and look for the substance.”

Behind the scenes, the EU has put pressure on the High Negotiations Committee – which represents a network of rebel fighters and Assad’s political opponents – to acknowledge that they are closer to military and political defeat, and must compromise. However, in public at least, the opposition has shown little willingness to retreat from the position that Assad must go.

“We are fully committed to the Geneva talks and prepared to discuss a political solution and transition,” Anas al-Abdah, head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, said. “[But] we cannot address the profound security threats … while Assad remains in power.”

In London, as it seeks to shape the discussions in Washington, there is a hope that a wedge can be driven between Russia and Iran, and that Moscow will demand greater flexibility from Damascus. But there is little sign of such a grand bargain being struck between Russia and America.

The UN secretary general, António Guterres, summed up the impasse at the weekend when he played down expectations of a breakthrough. “Peace is only possible when none of the parties to the conflict think they can win,” he said. “I’m not sure we are yet there.”


Patrick Wintour in Geneva

The GuardianTramp

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