US Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Thursday that peace talks for the five-year-old conflict in Syria will take place sometime next week, although initial talks will not be face-to-face meetings.
Secretary Kerry also told reporters that although the peace talks were scheduled to begin on Monday, they may be delayed for a few days.
Due to the delicacy of the situation in Syria, the first discussions will take place through “proximity talks,” in which the government and its supporters and the opposition and its supporters will gather separately. According to Kerry, the proximity talks will allow participants to establish a rapport and “build some process” before meeting face to face.
An already complex conflict, discussions about the future of Syria are complicated by foreign support. Russia and Iran support the Syrian government, while the United States and the Gulf States support the rebels.
The humanitarian costs of the five-year conflict have made the need for negotiations all the more clear. At least two hundred thousand people have died as a result of the violence. Millions of others have fled the country.
This is the United Nations' third attempt to gather interested parties for peace talks. Another attempt in Switzerland failed in 2014 due to inflexibility on both sides of the negotiating table.
These most recent talks have been particularly difficult to organize due to debate over which groups should be represented. Due to the tangled web of alliances, as well as ethnic and religious rivalries in the region, recent days have included heavy debate over who to include in the talks.
United Nations Special Envoy to Syria, Steffan de Mistura, is in charge of sending out invitations to the talks. He will not do so until the negotiating parties come to an agreement about who they will send.
Although he is still struggling to get everyone to the negotiating table, de Mistura is optimistic. At least, he says, everyone is thinking about the issues. And when they consider what is going on, de Mistura says, “the Syrian people and basically everybody realizes that this [war] cannot go on.”
The Syrian government is wary of including a range of opposition groups in the talks. While Saudi Arabia and the United States support a coalition of opposition groups called the Syrian High Negotiations Committee, Russia wanted to choose its own delegation, a stipulation to which the Syrian High Negotiations Committee objects.
The Syrian government and its supporters oppose the inclusion of “terrorist groups” in the negotiation. The subjectivity of “terrorist” as a classifier means that some of the groups chosen to represent the opposition are considered suspect by the Syrian government. This issue played a part in derailing the last round of peace talks in 2014.
Syrian government supporters Russia and Iran also want to include Kurdish groups. Turkey, which supports the opposition, has been waging war against its Kurdish people and does not want them represented at the talks. Neither does the Syrian High Negotiations Committee, which objects on the basis that the Kurdish people have not been fighting Assad directly.
Despite the fraught atmosphere surrounding the selection of delegates, Russia and the US are both highly invested in the success of these talks. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met to discuss the list of invitees on Wednesday.
Goals for the talks are modest compared to what UN negotiators and many world powers hoped to achieve several years ago. Initially, negotiators had political goals in mind. They sought a country-wide ceasefire and a political transition to a new regime.
In 2011, President Barack Obama called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resign. He wrote in a statement that, “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
Now, Washington has retreated from that stance. The US will no longer make Assad’s resignation a prerequisite for political transition, although its allies in the Gulf States and Turkey object.
Now, the opposition’s official political goals include a drawn-out transition period, during which Assad may remain in power. After revelations about the condition of civilians within Syria, however, such as the discovery of starvation conditions at Madaya, diplomatic aims for the discussions next week are more humanitarian. Now, discussions will be about delivering food and medical aid to those who need it.
Kerry expressed patience with the proceedings on Friday, telling reporters that, “We just see this is as logistical ... we are just kind of lining pieces up here. We’ll see where we are."