Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Mixed goals in Geneva

The stakeholders in the Geneva IV talks on Syria will need to find agreement on their different goals if peace is to be achieved in the country

Mixed goals in Geneva
Mixed goals in Geneva

The fourth round of the Geneva talks on the Syrian crisis was launched on 23 February and is supposed to continue until 3 March at the United Nations building in the Swiss city.

The participants include UN special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, representatives of the International Syria Support Group, a delegation from the Syrian regime in Damascus led by Syrian envoy to the UN Bashar Jaafari, an umbrella organisation of the opposition headquartered in Riyadh, as well as Cairo and Moscow-based groups.

The Syrian Kurds are the big absentee at the talks even though they are major forces on the ground in fighting against the Islamic State (IS) group and terrorism. Iran, Turkey and Russia are sponsoring the Geneva talks, and the Turks did not want to see the Syrian Kurds included.

As a result, a range of different people with different goals has gathered to discuss the Syrian crisis, with each not being able to make any move without prior consultations with its supporters.

Jihad Makdisi of the opposition Cairo Contact Platform told Al-Ahram Weekly on 24 February that all the groups were in Geneva in the hope of achieving success. “We are open, positive, and here to talk, and it’s up to the special envoy [de Mistura] if we need to have face-to-face talks with the government representatives,” he said.

It seems that everyone is open to talks with everyone else, but it will be complicated to discuss matters which are still not certain, among them the fate of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, the question of a transitional government in Syria, and deciding who is and who is not a terrorist.

“The problem is achieving transition in our country — mutual transition,” Makdisi said.

For the time being, de Mistura’s role at this fragile moment in the talks is to keep the current ceasefire alive and to provide humanitarian assistance to those caught up in the conflict zones in Syria.

De Mistura’s giving so much credit to the Astana Conference in Kazakhstan some months ago and encouraging the major players of Iran, Turkey and Russia to commit to the ceasefire while he is working in Geneva with the Syrian parties speaks of the huge gaps at the Geneva IV talks between the opposition and the government.

The Astana talks emphasised how Russia and Turkey were orchestrating the negotiations and how Iran was increasingly being cut out of the decision-making process.

Iran is now trying to use the Geneva IV talks as a forum for refocusing international attention on counter-terrorism issues in Syria, such as the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group, rather than Al-Assad’s rule, while Turkey and Russia have different goals.

Russia and Turkey will likely eventually cut deals with the Syrian opposition that allow for Al-Assad’s departure. Tehran does not have sufficient political leverage to force Moscow to follow its lead, and it will likely have to accept the terms that Russia and Turkey dictate in the talks.

One example of this was when the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that US representatives would attend the first round of technical talks in Astana, despite Iran’s clear preference to exclude the West from the negotiations.

Iranian National Security Council Secretary-General Ali Shamkhani recently stated that Russian military jets would be allowed to use Iranian airspace for operations in Syria, an issue that caused consternation amongst Iranian lawmakers last summer when reports surfaced of Russia’s use of the Hamedan Airbase in Iran.

It is clear that all the parties are working towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict, but it is too soon to speculate on the outcome of talks or the US’s role in them or its view on the Syria conflict.

Moscow wants all the stakeholders at the table, including US representatives, and Saudi Arabia and Iran probably feel threatened by these actions even if their diplomats are obliged to follow them.

There is much to discuss between the Russians, the Turks and the Iranians before the negotiations enter a more serious phase, with forecasters in Geneva speaking of more Astana talks to come.

First, Iran will have to manage the competing interests between the Kurdish groups in Syria and Turkey, particularly in the city of Al-Bab which has already demonstrated the potential for escalating tensions between Tehran and Ankara over regional strategy.

It is obvious that Iran will also increasingly face concerns about being cut out of side deals with Russia and Turkey on Syria, and that it is worried about Turkish intentions to establish a foothold in northern Iraq.

The solution to these challenges must be to accept a political solution to regional conflicts that is non-sectarian and that will benefit all the parties involved. Such goals should be agreed and discussed in advance, perhaps at Astana before the intra-Syrian talks can be continued.

None of this will be achieved without the representation of all the regional countries involved or affected by the crisis in Syria, and the Kurds are an important issue that cannot be ignored, a diplomat at Geneva IV commented.

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