The only concession that UN special envoy for Syria Steffan de Mistura managed to obtain from the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and opposition delegations by the end of the fourth Geneva Conference on Syria was their agreement to discuss the four main issues of an interim government, the country’s constitution, the holding of elections and terrorism.
These are now to form the outline for the Fifth Geneva Conference to take place later this month unless circumstances postpone it.
On the positive side, the Syrian opposition delegation did not withdraw from the negotiations as it did at the Geneva III Conference. This works in its favour since the Swiss platform offers an opportunity for the opposition to draw the international spotlight to the situation in Syria and to expose the rigidity of a regime that sees Geneva not as a negotiating process but as a venue for the opposition’s surrender and submission to the authority of the Al-Assad regime.
It was for this reason that the opposition agreed on the inclusion of the fight against terrorism among the negotiating points for Geneva V in exchange for gains in other areas.
The regime was compelled to yield to Russian pressures to accept the inclusion of the interim government among the negotiating points for Geneva V. Up until now it has refused all discussion of this issue, and throughout Geneva IV it tried to minimise it, insisting that the war against terrorism, the constitution and the elections should take priority.
But such positive results, modest as they are, offer little to build on. For one thing, there appears to be considerable difficulty surrounding the date on which to resume the talks. The Russians announced that negotiations would resume on 20 March, but they clearly had not consulted with de Mistura, who gave no specific date, mentioning only that the talks would resume sometime this month.
It was as if he was reminding Moscow that the Geneva Conference was being held under the UN’s jurisdiction and not the Kremlin’s. Meanwhile, the head of the Syrian government delegation announced that Damascus was “still considering whether it would return to the next round of talks,” conveying the implicit threat that it may boycott the negotiations.
The regime also reiterated its demand for a “unified” opposition delegation that would be a “national partner and not a Qatari, Saudi, French or Turkish one”. The underlying message appeared to be that the regime was dissatisfied by Geneva IV, that it has only agreed to discussing the four points very grudgingly, and that it is still not open to a diplomatic solution to the crisis in the country.
As soon as the Geneva Conference ended, Moscow announced another conference that would be held in the Kazakh capital Astana on 14 March. The Astana III Conference is intended to resume discussions on the ceasefire in Syria and the monitoring mechanisms that were proposed at Astana II and that neither the regime nor the Russians have adhered to.
Both are continuing to wage aerial and ground offences on areas under the control of the Syrian opposition on the pretext that they are fighting the Islamic State (IS) group and Fatah Al-Sham (formerly the Al-Nusra Front).
The American position remains ambiguous. The new administration in Washington has given almost no indication of its policies towards Syria and the region, the type of agreement it will accept, or its reactions to the Astana II and Geneva IV Conferences. This uncertainty has been disconcerting for all local, regional and international powers.
Geneva IV was not so much a negotiating round as a session to test the waters and to gauge the intentions of the other side. It was a negotiating manoeuvre, managed by the Russians together with the UN, with the Turks hovering in the wings.
Moscow had hoped to impose its will both on the regime and the opposition, compelling them both to concede and thereby circumventing the UN umbrella and the outputs of Geneva I that form the internationally accepted basis for a solution.
In short, the Russians wanted to monopolise the game and attract the attention of the Americans. However, the paltry results of the conference confirmed that the Syrian question is too big for the Russians to handle alone, especially given the multiplicity of regional and international stakeholders involved, to which testify both the failure to persuade the delegations to meet face-to-face in Geneva and the breakdown of the ceasefire in Syria.
In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Syrian opposition member Said Muqbil said that “the Russians insisted on proceeding with the Geneva negotiations in spite of the American absence because they know that their military successes achieved in recent months, and hence by the regime and the Iranian forces, are unsustainable and cannot constitute the basis of a real military victory.”
“They tried to force the regime to make concessions. However, those concessions only make up 10 per cent of the demands of the opposition and the millions of Syrian people who do not want to see the perpetuation of a regime that has destroyed Syria with its war. They were not sufficient or convincing enough to be able to say that Geneva IV was a step forward,” Muqbil said.
Before the conference began, de Mistura told reporters not to be overly optimistic or to expect miracles. Ceilings then began to lift and lines to shift, but things quickly evaporated while on the ground in Syria the regime and its allies were sustaining their drive to expand the territory under their control.
They claim the ceasefire agreement is still in place, even though the regime has not respected it since it went into force, and the Russians have not abided by their commitments as one of the guarantors of the truce agreement.
It seems that all the parties regarded this latest round in Geneva as merely a way to pass the time until the Americans clarify their position on Syria and other regional issues so that these same parties can rearrange their cards accordingly. This process will inevitably give rise to new alignments and perhaps conflicts of a different sort.
Geneva IV ended without clear progress of any sort, whether in terms of procedures or on the level of the agenda. It consisted of a series of talks held separately between each side and the UN envoy, with each side remarking on the “positive climate.”
There were also some curious contradictions. The head of the Syrian delegation, Bashar Al-Jaafari, announced that the fight against terrorism had been included on the negotiating agenda, yet the Russian TASS news agency reported that de Mistura had not done so and had insisted on discussing the question of governance in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
The TASS report was consistent with a statement by the head of the opposition delegation that the political transition process had become a permanent item for negotiation.
Russia managed to take advantage of the former Obama administration’s decision to take a backseat in steering the conflict in Syria, but there is no clear sign from the new administration that this policy will now remain in place. This has made Moscow nervous, an indication of which was to be found in the cautious statements emanating from Russian political and military officials in Geneva and elsewhere.
These have expressed a desire for constructive bilateral cooperation in the resolution of conflicts and crises, although they have not been without a hint of warning against the consequences of an American-Russian confrontation. Rendering this more ominous were remarks made by US President Donald Trump in his recent first speech before Congress in which he spoke of the need to revive US international standing, which he said had been undermined by the former administration and its “disastrous” foreign policy.
“It is impossible to say whether Russian-US relations are heading towards a period of openness and cooperation,” said Syrian opposition member Abdullah Hawash in an interview with the Weekly. “Perhaps the opposite is more likely. US Secretary of Defence James Mattis has said that the US is ‘not in a position right now’ to collaborate with Russia on military matters, but that the two countries’ ‘political leaders will engage and try to find common ground.’ ”
“The Russian defence minister countered by warning Washington against any ‘attempt to negotiate with Moscow from a position of strength’. In the same context, it is important to consider US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s remark that US cooperation with Russia is contingent on its stance towards the Syrian opposition. He said that Russia needed to stop labelling all the opposition factions as terrorists,” Hawash said.
Russian-Iranian relations also appear to be not as aligned on Syria as the two sides claim. The differences in their outlooks towards the crisis surfaced after the Russia-Turkish agreement, and Washington’s mounting campaign against Iran, which it calls the “number one sponsor of terrorism” in the region, makes the situation more difficult for Russia.
As for Turkey, although it is currently allied with Russia on Syria it is ready to jettison that alliance if relations with the Americans revert to their previous level. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has suggested that this might be soon, saying that “there is no understanding between Russia and Turkey on the proposed safe zones in Syria. The two sides are still discussing the matter. On the other hand, there is an understanding between Turkey and the new US administration on this idea.”
The major European powers are opposed to Russia’s policies on Syria and are working to defend their own interests in the region. However, they too are waiting to see how US policies gel in order to rework their calculations.
In the light of the foregoing, it is unlikely that either Astana III or Geneva V, if it convenes, will make a breakthrough in view of how the stakeholders are currently positioned and how divergent their agendas are.
The only variable that could alter the picture is the US position. According to political and military sources in the US, this will remain strong because the Syrian crisis has become too heavy a burden and too extensive a threat to international security. Their predictions are that actions will be taken to curtail Iran and that Turkey will be given a greater role in altering the equations on the ground.
Russia will remain entrenched in its position if it does not obtain a solution that offers it the fruits it seeks after all the political, moral and military resources it has squandered in Syria.
A diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis requires an international consensus and a shift in the current alignments of the parties involved. As long as this does not occur, the military conflict will persist and increase in scope and severity.