When Russia began preparations for the forthcoming Geneva IV Conference on the Syrian crisis, it launched a series of initiatives that began with a fragile ceasefire at the end of last year followed by the Astana I Conference to put in place a mechanism to monitor it.
The Astana II Conference that followed was described as a failure even before it started, and there were also other meetings between the Syrian opposition and its various backers to pick the opposition negotiating team for the forthcoming Geneva IV Conference.
There have been many disputes about who should go as the representatives of the opposition to the Geneva Conference. The High Commission for Negotiations has disagreed with the National Coalition of Revolutionary Forces on quotas, but it has agreed not to include platforms close to Moscow or the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
As the wrangling continued, the armed opposition factions that participated in the Astana I Conference were guaranteed a seat at the table, in fact half the members of the negotiating team and a similar percentage of the delegation of advisers.
After meetings in Riyadh and Istanbul, the Syrian opposition had almost decided on the composition of its 21-member negotiating team, ten of them from the armed factions. But the wrangling continued, and the final composition of the delegation doubled the number of opposition figures without affecting the quota of armed factions.
The positions of the opposition in the media did not prevent the addition of more participants from the earlier Cairo and Moscow meetings. Russia is the sponsor of the Astana and Geneva IV Conferences, its partner Turkey is the guarantor of the armed opposition, and various Arab countries are friendly to the opposition more generally.
Moscow is now trying to change the priorities of the negotiations ahead of the Geneva IV Conference and use what was agreed at Astana as the sole frame of reference, replacing prior decisions that guaranteed political change in Syria and the formation of a transitional government.
The opposition has been divided among those who want to discuss the political transition in Geneva based on such key principles, and those who reject the idea of political negotiations and insist that Geneva can only be an extension of the Astana talks since the ceasefire, humanitarian issues, and the release of detainees are already preconditions for any negotiations with the regime according to the Geneva I Declaration.
UN Representative to Syria Staffan de Mistura has issued what amounts to a threat that the Geneva agenda should not change. This would mean “opening the doors to hell,” he has said, adding that the conference should discuss the formation of a transitional government, the drafting of a constitution and the holding of elections under UN supervision.
The only frame of reference should be UN Security Council Resolution 1154, he said, which means cancelling the Geneva Declaration issued in mid-2012 as the basis for the negotiations. But there is still a need for a political transition in Syria based on a transitional government with full powers, as stated in the Geneva I Declaration, and a drafting body to write a new constitution and prepare for elections, as stated in the Geneva I Declaration and UN Security Council Resolutions 2118 and 2254.
Although the opposition has rejected the draft constitution the Russians drafted in January, Moscow is continuing to push it for the Geneva talks. De Mistura supports the Russian moves, even though neither he nor his team participated in drafting the document. This raises doubts about his goals and whether he will agree to a solution in Syria that is unfair or illogical.
Moscow insists on including the platforms of Moscow, Cairo and Astana in the opposition negotiating team together with the opposition forces. Some of these are closer to the regime than the opposition, and it is impossible for many opposition forces to accept them. This may lead to Russia placing figures close to its views on the conference’s negotiating and advisory teams.
In the run-up to the Geneva IV Conference, various political manoeuvres are underway. Astana hosted a second conference on 16 February, and although Moscow tried to make it a success most regional and international actors were absent. Meanwhile, the US, France, Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other countries met on 17 February on the sidelines of the G20 foreign ministers meeting in Bonn to find common ground for the Geneva talks on Syria.
The Europeans were trying to explore the position of the new US administration and whether it complies with policies set out by former US president Barack Obama. The US position has impacted the preamble to the Geneva IV Conference, and at Astana II the military factions decided to suspend participation in the conference because the regime and its allies were not complying with the ceasefire and were using the activities of the Al-Nusra Front as a pretext for Syrian or Russian air strikes.
The factions were supported by Turkey, Ankara’s way of irking Moscow. This was evident in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s tone after his recent meeting with the head of the CIA in proposing the “liberation” of the Syrian city of Raqqa.
It is not expected that the fourth round of the Geneva talks will result in a settlement of the Syrian crisis. The regime insists that Al-Assad remain in power and rejects any political transition. Instead, it insists on finding a military solution to the crisis, saying that the opposition, both political and military, is made up of “terrorists”.
There is little optimism about a breakthrough at the Geneva Conference, not only because of the regime’s intransigence but also because of other deeper factors. The US is not directly involved in the conference, and there have been delays in the White House clarifying its vision for Syria and the Middle East as a whole. US President Donald Trump has said he is waiting for his aides to come up with a plan for a “forceful intervention” in Syria.
This was supported by US Defence Secretary James Mattis, who said on 17 February that his country was not ready for military cooperation with Russia after inviting his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu to improve bilateral relations.
There are many incompatible forces at work in Syria, including those of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. Each is trying to impose a solution that serves its interests and sees Syria as a battleground for settling scores and grabbing regional and international influence.
The climate surrounding the Geneva IV Conference is not ideal in terms of reaching a political solution to the Syrian crisis because of the diverging positions of the regime and the opposition and the different goals of each side’s backers. It could be enough, however, to enforce a ceasefire, depending on the resolve of the opposition delegation and its insistence on firm guarantees, monitoring, accountability and penalties under Arab and international supervision.
This could be the start of a long road to ending the violence of the Syrian regime and Iran and its militias, on the one hand, and that of the terrorist groups the Islamic State (IS) and Fath Al-Sham on the other.
The opposition has been forced by circumstances to participate in the Geneva IV Conference. It could have demanded clarification before agreeing to participate, but since it agreed to attend without scrutinising the content and focussed on wrangling about attendees it must now be flexible and bend with the wind if it is not to break.
At the same time, it must remain adamant about the demands of the Syrian people for a real political transition in the country. If the opposition does not show both flexibility and resolve, it will be broken in Geneva, and this will likely be followed by another round of political farce requiring the entire restructuring of the Syrian opposition.