What Makes the Current Round of Geneva Talks Different

Russia has allowed the Syrian regime to prevail militarily on the ground and it has succeeded in bringing the fighting to an end in many parts of the country. But it needs legitimate partners to work with if it really wants peace to return to Syria, believes Bassma Kodmani, co-founder and Executive Director of the Arab Reform Initiative.

Round 8 of the Geneva intra-Syrian talks looks very much like the previous rounds which started in February 2016. The Special Envoy is the same, Staffan de Mistura and what is on the table as the agenda for negotiations is a continuation of the discussion around four baskets (political transition, constitutional process, electoral procedures and security and counterterrorism) in addition to a document about the enduring features of Syria, twelve principles which will guide the drafting of the future constitution of Syria. The first week of this round which started on November 28 has made zero progress. This is also a repetition of the scenario of the last two years. So, what are the differences and why have we all come back to Geneva?

As Geneva Talks Continue, Russia Has a Critical Role to Play Randa Slim
Moscow’s leverage over Assad will diminish with time, writes Valdai Club expert Randa Slim. There is a short window of time for Russia to midwife a political solution in Syria and translate its military success into a diplomatic achievement that can lay the groundwork for a durable and sustainable peace in Syria.

There has been a key development on the side of the Syrian opposition. In the week of November 20, all opposition groups came together in Riyadh and decided to form a united delegation. The leadership of the former High Negotiations Committee resigned and a new leadership was elected by some 150 participants. It now includes representatives from all the factions that formed the previous HNC including members of the armed groups, in addition to members of the two smaller groups known as Cairo group and Moscow group. The process was arduous but the success of the intra-opposition negotiations reflected flexibility and responsible behavior on the part of all. This is the opposition which came to Geneva with a serious commitment to enter negotiations without preconditions. This is clearly stated in the final communiqué of the Riyadh 2 conference.

It is true that the ultimate objective of seeing Assad out of power still appears in the text. How else can the opposition keep on board all armed groups and continue to have the support of all those in Syria whose families and livelihoods Assad’s forces have destroyed? But whoever reads it in good faith can see that it also says the opposition has come to Geneva without preconditions and that there is ample room to manoeuver for both the opposition and the countries which are serious about seeking a political settlement. The United Nations knows that it can now work with the opposition on carving the path towards a peaceful orderly transition.

The second most important development is the new assumption that Russia is interested this time in finding an exit strategy from Syria and that it is genuinely seeking to broker a political settlement between the regime and the opposition. After having thrown its military weight behind Assad and saved his neck, the Russian leadership is in a position to exert pressure on him to allow an orderly transition that can save lives, save what remains of the country and save the interests of the regional and international powers, chief among them Russia itself. When we speak of an agreement, we should add an acceptable agreement meaning that if it does not meet the minimum requirements of the opposition, it will simply resemble a forced settlement on which no credible opposition figure will agree to sign off and armed groups will not be persuaded to lay down their weapons.

Russia has allowed the regime to prevail militarily on the ground and it has succeeded in bringing the fighting to an end in many parts of the country. But it needs legitimate partners to work with if it really wants peace to return to Syria. The Assad regime, while it nominally holds legal representation of Syria, has lost all legitimacy. President Putin knows this.

Today, the prospect of a settlement lies primarily with Russia. What we in the Syrian democratic opposition want to say to President Putin is this: you have in front of you a united opposition. It is diverse, moderate and secular. It, not Assad, is your best partner for a genuine settlement, for the fight against terrorism and the return of stability. Don’t squander this opportunity. The risk is high for Syria and for the region, but it is also high for you and your interests. Western countries are happy to see Russia trapped in the Syrian quagmire and consider that you now own the Syrian problem. We in the opposition are serious and committed but we are not eternal. If you make good use of our good will today and broker a decent deal, you will put Syria with all its diverse communities on the path to recovery.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.