Syria Geneva II talks: the long road to peace?

At first the talks were delayed for 24 hours, then Syria’s foreign minister threatened to walk out. But last night the two sides agreed to be in the same room. Kim Sengupta reports from Geneva on the UN mission to end the bloodshed

Two years, 10 months, and three weeks after the start of the protest marches which would spiral into a vicious civil war threatening to engulf the region and beyond, Syria’s regime and rebels will today begin the peace negotiations which will supposedly help to end the bloodshed.

The face-to-face talks were delayed for 24 hours after last-minute differences of the type which had plagued the proceedings from the outset. The opposition demanded that the regime must first sign up to the Geneva I protocol, issued following a previous conference, which calls, among other things, for the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power. This was followed by the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Muallem, threatening to return to Damascus unless “serious discussions” took place.

But after a hard day of shuttle diplomacy the UN mediator for the talks reported that the two sides were prepared to meet and the negotiations would continue through the weekend until the end of next week. A tired and drawn Lakhdar Brahimi said: “We have tried for a long time to get these talks started, no one thought it was going to be an easy process. The delegations here, from the government and the opposition, know what is at stake, their country is in a very bad shape. We have now agreed that we shall meet in the same room. The discussions I had with the two parties were encouraging.

Although the fact that the direct meetings were rearranged so soon after the initial cancellation was an impressive testament to those driving for a negotiated settlement, deep chasms remain on fundamental issues, and one in particular – the fate of Mr Assad.

 

Mr Brahimi insisted that everyone present at the talks was there “without preconditions and on the basis of the Geneva I communiqué of 30 June 2012”. But the key point of that is the establishment of a transitional administration by “mutual consent”. The opposition and its international allies insist that Mr Assad and those closest to him cannot play any part in this. The regime has declared repeatedly that any attempt to remove the President would be crossing a “red line” and would not be countenanced.

The regime is highly unlikely to accede to the demands for a written undertaking of adherence to Geneva I, something the political representatives of the rebels were insisting yesterday was imperative for the talks to move forward. Asked about these issues, Mr Brahimi argued, without much conviction it seemed, that “there were different interpretations on some of those items. I think the two sides understand that very well and accept it”.

Louay Safi is surrounded by journalists as he arrives to the United Nations headquarters in Geneva Louay Safi is surrounded by journalists as he arrives to the United Nations headquarters in Geneva (AP)
The opposition backed the arrangements, claiming that it showed that the regime had now endorsed Geneva I. Anas al-Abdah, a delegate, said: “We are satisfied with Mr Brahimi’s statement today and that the regime has accepted Geneva I; and on this basis we will meet the Assad delegation tomorrow morning. It will be a short session in which only Brahimi will speak, to be followed by another session, a longer one, in the afternoon.”

The failure to hold the direct talks on Friday was greeted by some as a collapse of the process. But a lot of the statements from both sides were posturing. Syrian expatriate advisers to the regime acknowledged that Mr Muallem’s threat was a tactical move aimed at getting the opposition to focus on the task ahead.

“There will be elections ... next year, we feel the Syrian people should be allowed to decide what happens to President Assad. Why not wait for that? Mr Muallem, maybe it was not translated properly, but it was not meant the way it came out, the government does not want this thing to collapse, there are others who don’t want this to collapse”, said one of them, a German national.

The Russians, without whose backing the regime would probably not have survived in the conflict, are said to have warned the Damascus delegation against pulling out. The rebels, too, were under pressure, from Western backers not to jeopardise the process. Just a few hours after boycotting the scheduled face-to-face talks, one, Burhan Ghalioun, said: “We will not withdraw from Geneva until the demands of the Syrian people are met.” Another, Louay Safi, added: “We want a commitment from the regime on Geneva I [but] we will be patient this week.”

Syria opposition delegates, Suheir Attasi, left, and Rima Fleihan, hold pictures of two opposition members who are currently held in the Syrian government jail Syria opposition delegates, Suheir Attasi, left, and Rima Fleihan, hold pictures of two opposition members who are currently held in the Syrian government jail (Reuters)
At the end it appeared to boil down to the opposition not physically being in the same room as the regime, but continuing talks by proxy. The convoys of the two groups were on the same road, they caught sight of each other across the courtyards of the Palais des Nations, but there would be no dialogue.

On the eve of the talks, Ahmad Jarba, head of the opposition alliance, after the standard denunciation of the regime, stressed the long road ahead to reach an agreement. This was echoed by Mr Muallem at the end of a preliminary international conference earlier in the week in Montreaux, a day he had started with a rant against the rebels, the West, the Gulf states and Turkey, all allegedly engaged in a criminal conspiracy against the Syrian state.

Western diplomats insist the regime had been forced to moderate its position by the reaction to Mr Muallem’s initial outburst, even allies such as Russia and China, and influential states which were deemed to be sympathetic, had distanced themselves from the regime’s rhetoric.

But in these constantly changing negotiations it is far from clear what has been chaotic and what was choreographed and it remains difficult to predict who will seize the advantage from Geneva II in the days ahead.

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