Last Wednesday, Syria peace talks in Geneva were suspended just days after they began. Although the peace process is under attack from many sides, Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy for Syria, said the negotiations had not collapsed and he only “decided to bring a temporary pause to the talks”, which would resume on February 25. The Valdai Club’s experts shared their vision of prospects of the Syrian peace settlement.
According to Ambassador Alexander Aksenyonok, member of the Russian International Affairs Council, the peace process became possible thanks to the efforts of Russia and the United States. Despite initial discord, “Moscow and Washington agreed to intensify pressure on the warring sides in Syria to compel them to launch negotiations,” he said.
“This approach, even if it is not quite stable, was largely shaped by the bold, albeit risky, entry of the Russian Aerospace Forces into the Syrian war to support the country’s internationally recognized government,” Aksenyonok said.
But it is clear that great power diplomacy alone cannot help resolve the crisis, as too many parties’ interests are at stake. “A well-informed American political analyst told me that Russia and the United States have currently more common ground than Washington and its Middle Eastern allies: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar,” the expert pointed out.
According to Moustafa Tlili, Founding Director of the Center for Dialogues: Islamic World -U.S. -The West at the New York University, the goals of such players as Saudi Arabia or Turkey are obvious and not compatible with those of Russia and the United States. “Ideologically, their objective is to install an Islamist regime in Syria,” he said.
The Valdai Club experts do not expect immediate success at the negotiations. “After the first days of Geneva talks neither side demonstrated readiness to compromise, which Russia and the United States as the main drivers of the peace process urge them to do,” Aksenyonok stressed.
“I don’t think we are close to a breakthrough now. The fighters on all sides still seem to think time is on their side,” said Jon Alterman, Director of Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “I don’t see much urgency from the Syrian side to come to an agreement, and that seems to be taking some of the energy out of the effort Secretary Kerry has been trying to lead to strike an agreement soon,” he added.
Moustafa Tlili compared the Syrian peace process to the long and difficult settlement in Algeria and Vietnam. “It will be a long process, which will be disrupted and resumed many times,” he said.
According to Tlili, the Syrian peace process must be based on three principles. “First, this is Syria’s territorial integrity. Second, the political setup must be determined by the Syrian people in internationally supervised elections. Third, in order to survive and to remain a responsible member of the international community, Syria must be a secular state accommodating all confessions”.
“The only thing that has changed over the five years is the number of victims, while the objectives of those who started this mayhem have remained the same,” Tlili said. According to him, any breakthrough can only happen when these principles are adopted.
Nevertheless, there are some reasons to be cautiously optimistic. “When you give a realistic estimate of the situation in Syria, you must understand that the mere existence of premises for moving forward does give some hope,” Aksenyonok said. “There are a lot of hidden problems ahead which can ruin this process. However, despite the pause that was announced, the process of negotiations is not interrupted,” the expert concluded.