Why Syria peace talks aren't going according to schedule

The talks were supposed to start Monday with hopes of leading to a cease-fire, a political transition, and an end to Syria’s devastating 5-year-old civil war.

Jacquelyn Martin/Reuters
US Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before their meeting on Syria, in Zurich, Switzerland, Jan. 20, 2016.

The Syria peace talks that were supposed to start Monday will almost certainly be put off as major powers squabble over who among the Syrian opposition should and should not attend.

It’s hardly a promising start for a “process,” as Secretary of State John Kerry calls the discussions, which are supposed to lead to a cease-fire, a political transition, and an end to Syria’s devastating 5-year-old civil war.

The inability to get the long-planned talks off the ground as scheduled amid heated disputes over the guest list is a stark reminder that Syria’s is no average civil war. Instead, it is a complex proxy war pitting regional powers against one another and serving as an arena where world powers, chief among them the United States and Russia, are employing their militaries with differing, if not opposing, ends.

And at the moment, it is Russia and its ally, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, that appear to have the upper hand.

A year ago, the US was still insisting that any resolution of the Syrian conflict would have to include Mr. Assad’s departure. But the US and its Western partners have moderated such demands as more than three months of Russia’s military intervention in Syria have reinforced Assad. He has increasingly become the “hold your nose and accept” option in terms of making headway on America’s No. 1 priority – defeating the Islamic State extremist organization.

“I see the slope leading us into the arms of Assad,” says one European diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, “but I don’t see the alternative to this slope.”

Both the US and Russia are adamant that the talks proceed, but for different reasons. Russia sees the talks bolstering the Assad regime’s hold on power. For the US, the most pressing concern has shifted from “Assad must go” to ending the fighting, alleviating Syria’s humanitarian crisis, and allowing a shift of energies to defeat the Islamic State.

Beyond the threat that deteriorating conditions inside Syria pose to millions of civilians, the humanitarian crisis, along with the instability it foments, serves the purposes of the Islamic State. And it feeds the migration crisis turning Europe upside down.

By Friday Secretary Kerry, attending the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, was insisting that any delay in the talks would be limited to a “day or two.” His Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, said earlier in the week that the talks would “definitely not” be put off to February.

But disputes remain over what opposition groups should be allowed inside the tent. Everyone agrees that the most extreme Islamist groups, including the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, will not attend. Beyond that, lists of participants diverge.

Saudi Arabia is insisting on inviting some radical Sunni opposition groups that Russia doesn’t want – their presence is opposed by Assad, who views them as “terrorists.” On the other hand, Russia does want the door open to Kurdish fighters that Turkey wants out of the picture and that Saudi Arabia would exclude as mere extensions of the Assad regime.

Kerry was scheduled to fly to Saudi Arabia over the weekend to try to keep the talks on track.

Another factor is Iran, which is emerging from years of diplomatic ostracism as a result of the recently implemented deal involving its nuclear program. The Obama administration had posited during the nuclear negotiations that a post-deal Iran might be more cooperative on international issues, but some Iran specialists say that, on the contrary, the country is likely to act more assertively in the region.

In terms of Syria, this could mean that Iran will act more aggressively to help ally Assad consolidate his hold on power before any cease-fire is declared.

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