Geneva II negotiations: Gravediggers will stay busy in Syria as peace talks end in failure

As talks in Geneva draw to a close, Patrick Cockburn, writing from Damascus, argues that peace is a distant hope

Damascus

The first session of the Geneva II peace negotiations, which ended yesterday, were more of a failure than they look. It was the sort of international conference of which the sponsors say that useful spadework was done and sceptics respond that the only spades in evidence were those of the grave diggers: some 1,870 Syrians were killed during the week of the peace talks.

For negotiations to have any hope of success they must reflect the balance of power on the ground in Syria. It is all very well for US Secretary of State John Kerry to state that the meeting would be entirely about political transition in Syria during which President Bashar al-Assad should leave power. But why should Mr Assad do anything of the sort when his forces hold 13 out 14 Syrian provincial capitals and are slowly retaking districts in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo captured by rebels in 2012?

If Mr Kerry is sincere in believing that peace can only come if Mr Assad goes, then he is in practice assuming a radical change in the present balance of forces in Syria which could only happen through a long war or full-scale foreign military intervention. The approach of the US and its European allies so far dooms Syrians to devastation and a repeat performance of the Lebanese civil war which lasted fifteen years between 1975 and 1990.

It is not that Mr Assad’s forces are likely to win a decisive victory. They may be inching their way forward but the rebels still hold great swathes of territory in the north and east of the country. The Syrian Army is short of troops, which must explain why it is blockading rather than recapturing small opposition enclaves in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo. Overall, there is a military stalemate that is unlikely to be broken.

The opposition is in a worse state than ever. It is not only divided but since 3 January is fighting its own civil war within the civil war. The ferocious Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) holds territory to the east and their opponents to the west of Aleppo, while they battle for control of supply lines to Turkey to the north. No outright winner is emerging. The only chance for the opposition to change their military fortunes would be a very long war in which they were fully backed by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies and Turkey.

These states might calculate that since the majority in Syria is Sunni Arab they will eventually win. But keep in mind that the supposedly “moderate” wing of the Syrian opposition is currently fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, the official Syrian representative of al-Qa’ida. The Alawi, Christians, Druze and Shia – possibly together with the Sunni Kurds – know there is no place for minorities in a Syria run by the present opposition. The Syrian Army may have difficulty getting enough recruits, but in the Christian area where I am staying in Damascus, the young men  volunteer to fight Jabhat al-Nusra, attacking their co-religionists in the mountains west of the capital.

Men hold a wounded civilian on a stretcher at a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by government forces in the Al-Ansari neighborhood of Aleppo Men hold a wounded civilian on a stretcher at a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by government forces in the Al-Ansari neighborhood of Aleppo (Reuters)
So-called confidence-building measures like food being distributed to besieged places like the Old City of Homs and Yarmouk Camp in Damascus are good in themselves. Hungry people get to eat. Sick children live who would have died. But it is doubtful how much confidence is really created between two sides that hate and distrust each other so much. The crimes are not all on one side. The opposition is calling loudly for food and medicine for 2,500 starving people in the Old City of Homs besieged by the government, but it keeps quiet about the rebels’ own siege of 45,000 Shia in the towns of Zahraa and Nubl outside Aleppo.

Any attempt at transitional government at this stage in the conflict will not work because power cannot be shared by people who want to kill each other. The only way that power can really be shared at this moment is on a geographical basis whereby each side holds the territory it currently controls under a ceasefire agreement. Given the fragmentation of the rebels this would probably mean a series of local ceasefires in different places.

Syrians inspect the rubble of destroyed buildings following a Syrian government airstrike in Aleppo Syrians inspect the rubble of destroyed buildings following a Syrian government airstrike in Aleppo (AP)
The days leading up to and during the peace talks were marked by accusations of war crimes against the Syrian government: there were the pictures of tortured and starved prisoners and a report on the demolition of whole neighbourhoods by government forces. But it would be a mistake for foreign observers to imagine that the unpopularity of the Syrian government translates into support for the rebels. As one Syrian in Damascus put it: “These days the people hate them both equally for having ruined our country and are desperate for the war to end.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Games Developer - HTML5

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£26000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Product Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to on-going expansion, this leading provid...

Recruitment Genius: Shift Leaders - Front of House Staff - Full Time and Part Time

£6 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a family ...

Day In a Page

A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

Are you a 50-center?

Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

Hollywood's new diet trends

Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works