While the outside players frantically shuttle between world capitals trying to convene peace talks in Geneva before the end of January, it seems there are only two things about Syria all can agree on: that a solution must be found to the five-year catastrophic war and that neither ISIS nor the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra can be part of that solution.
But there the unity ends. Calling the fighting inside Syria a ‘civil war’ seems wrong when there are so many outside players – Russia, Iran and Hezbollah supporting the Assad government, America, Europe, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey supporting the rebel opposition – and those are just the key actors. Certainly many Syrians inside Syria feel it is no longer a war over which they can exert any control. Interventions by outside interested actors, most recently Russia, mean that Syrian territory is being used as a battlefield with scant regard for those who once lived there. Small wonder so many are leaving, giving up on their country, heading for the ‘safe haven’ of Europe. One million refugees made it to Europe in 2015. Unless the war stops, projections for 2016 are that 3 million will come. The urgency for peace talks is real.
All previous attempts have failed, but this time the hope is that the UN Resolution unanimously passed on 18 December 2015 gives the necessary mandate. It sets a timetable for talks to begin in January 2016, form a transitional government within six months, followed by free UN-supervised elections a year later, in which all Syrians, even those abroad in the diaspora will be eligible to vote, something which Assad banned in the 2014 elections where he was re-elected for his third 7-year term. A recent secret poll conducted inside regime areas is said to have shown a maximum of 25% support for Assad, so there is little doubt that his fate in fair elections would be a resounding rejection by his people.
Brinkmanship games are rife as the talks approach. Media and propaganda wars between Russia and the West’s versions of the truth on besieged areas like Madaya are matched on the ground by escalations of Russian air strikes and rebel offensives desperate to gain a few extra centimetres in case a ceasefire is forced upon them. The death toll has risen sharply and thousands more have been displaced from their homes.
The UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura has refused to send out invitations to Geneva till the list of attendees on both sides has been agreed by the US and Russia. The Assad regime has named its delegation, headed by Bashar al-Ja’fari, Syria’s UN representative. The rebel opposition has named its team, approved in Riyadh. The chief negotiator is Muhammad Alloush, brother of Zahran Alloush, former head of powerful rebel group Jaysh al-Islam, who was assassinated on Christmas Day in a Russian air strike. George Sabra, a Christian dissident who spent time in Assad’s prisons, has been named as the deputy.
Needless to say, Russia and Assad are not happy with this ‘revolutionary’ opposition and are now trying to pressure the US and other parties into accepting its own list of ‘approved’ opposition as well, so that there would be two opposition delegations. Included in the Russian list would be Saleh Muslim, leader of the PYD Syrian Kurds, with whom both the US and Russia have recently been partnering in their fight against ISIS. But the ‘revolutionary’ opposition does not see the Syrian Kurds as part of the solution, since they never fought Assad, but simply took advantage of the power vacuum when Assad’s troops pulled out of the northern Kurdish areas and seized the territory for themselves. The Syrian Kurds argue that they must sit at the negotiating table now that they control such a big chunk of territory in the north with their semi-autonomous region of Rojava.
Assuming some kind of formula can be found to reach agreement on who is invited, the delegations will then hold ‘proximity talks’, not sitting in the same room or even the same building, with Staffan de Mistura and his team shuttling between the delegations trying to find enough common ground to keep talking.
That will be the easy bit. For whatever may be agreed in these peace talks, it will all be worthless unless it is enforced on the ground. No Syrians I know are holding their breath.