BEIRUT: When the Geneva IV Syria peace talks closed Friday, they wrapped up with an unexpected air of optimism, with claims of psychological barriers broken and positive developments. Not so fast, analysts say. Signs of progress may be deceptive, and the next round of United Nations-sponsored negotiations set for March 20 is likely to see talks stuck firmly at square one.
The Geneva talks concluded with an agreement on the agenda for the next round of negotiations, and the main opposition delegation was quick to declare itself satisfied at having political transition discussed and on the program.
“It was first time we discussed in an acceptable depth the issues of the future of Syria and political transition,” High Negotiations Committee delegation chief Nasr al-Hariri told reporters after the talks.
This, however, is a hollow victory, says Haid Haid, associate fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, because political transition has theoretically always been on the agenda.
All U.N.-sponsored Geneva talks are conducted according to a U.N. Security Council resolution and communiqué that refer to political transition. “So in a way it has always been there,” Haid says. “Just adding it to the next round’s agenda is not a big success.”
However, according to Ambassador Fredric C. Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, the opposition may believe that Geneva V will see the subject of political transition move from theoretical point to genuine negotiations.
“The opposition has a sense that the Russians are sincerely interested in delivering the Assad regime to the point of serious negotiations, serious give and take,” he tells The Daily Star, “and I believe that the U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura has a similar appraisal.”
Hof says that Russia is beginning to give signs that it wants to turn a page and open Syria to the possibility of actual peace, stability and rehabilitation. Moscow, he says, would like to see in Syria a stable country worth having military and naval bases, which could be party to a trade relationship and which could purchase Russian arms.
“The difficulty the Russians face is that they know their client is singularly unsuitable for any of this.”
Syrian President Bashar Assad has, even at his regime’s weakest points, proved himself totally unwilling to compromise, let alone share power with anyone outside his family or entourage.
Now the regime, thanks to the support of the Russian military and Iran-backed militias, is firmly in the ascent, and has in recent months scored symbolic victories by taking the cities of Aleppo and Palmyra.
The likelihood, therefore, of Assad acquiescing to some sort of power-sharing agreement with opposition groups, however limited in scope it might be, is slim to say the least.
The opposition, however, believe that Russia has the ability to lean on the regime and force it to the table, which was seen to some extent in the previous round of talks when Moscow helped ease political transition onto the next round’s agenda.
Yet Hof, who served as former U.S. President Barack Obama’s special adviser for transition in Syria, thinks that in fact Russia’s influence on the Syrian regime may not be as significant as the opposition and de Mistura would like to believe.
“I can tell you from my own experience back in government back in 2012, when I spent the first six months of the year in places like Moscow and Geneva speaking with Russians, the one consistent theme I heard from Russian diplomats – and people seemed very sincere on this – was ‘Please don’t overestimate the amount of real leverage we have on these guys,’” he says.
“The Assads have made a professional career out of taking, taking, taking, taking and then barely even saying thank you.”
In the end, the opposition’s satisfaction at having political transition included on the agenda may be short-lived, thanks to the point the regime delegation insisted on including as well: terrorism.
The subject of terrorism, says Julien Barnes-Dacey, senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations, is “a deliberate political strategy to both divert attention but also to weaken the opposition.”
“They [the regime] know that once they put that on the table the discussion will be on that topic rather than other important issues like transition, transitional period or even the constitution or elections,” Haid, of Chatham House, explains.
Moreover, by pointing to affiliations that some opposition groups have, either directly or indirectly, with outfits such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, which was linked to Al-Qaeda, the regime can cast doubt on its opponents’ credibility and sure up international support.
Key here also is the new administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which has made it quite clear that it prioritizes fighting terror groups such as Daesh (ISIS) over finding a political settlement to the broader Syrian war.
By focusing on terror, the regime leaves the door open for future coordination with Washington.
To some extent the parties involved in Syria peace negotiations are waiting for the Trump administration to give some indication of where its interests and support lie, before they can play their cards in serious negotiations.
In the meantime, the opposition, the regime and their sponsors are due in Astana ahead of the next round of Geneva negotiations, for talks aimed at setting in place a sustainable reduction or cessation of hostilities.
Failure to achieve anything substantial in Astana and allow violence on the ground to increase, and Geneva V’s chances of getting off the ground seem minimal, with any kind of political transition seeming further away than ever.