The dawn of a peace process for Syria?

Major powers are scrambling to put aside their differences ahead of Monday's scheduled Syria peace talks in Geneva. 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Secretary of State Kerry speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 19, 2015, after briefing members of the Senate Intelligence Committee on the U.S. strategy in Syria.

By fits and starts, the key players are moving toward Syrian peace talks Monday. 

UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, Switzerland, between the Syrian government and opposition groups have been hanging in the balance as the various backers have tried to resolve disputes among themselves.

Arab Gulf states are worried by warming relations between the United States and Iran, the United States and Turkey are at odds over the Syrian Kurds, and Russia and the United States disagree over who should even attend the talks.

Then there is the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an issue that has divided interested parties since almost the very start of this five-year civil war.

Yet there was a glimmer of hope Saturday, as Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to reporters in Riyadh, following a meeting with Gulf Cooperation Council states in the Saudi capital:

"We are confident that with good initiative in the next day or so those talks can get going and that the U.N. representative special envoy, Staffan De Mistura, will be convening people in an appropriate manner for the proximity talks that will be the first meeting in Geneva."

The first hurdle to overcome is disagreement over who should form the Syrian opposition delegation attending talks in Geneva.

Russia is unhappy with the Saudi proposition to include a radical Islamist militia, Jaysh al Islam (Army of Islam). In turn, it has made its own demands, including the presence of former Syrian deputy prime minister, Qadri Jamil, as well as co-head of the Syrian Kurdish group PYD, Saleh Muslim, according to Bloomberg.

But a compromise seems to have been reached, whereby two separate opposition delegations will be in attendance, one to include the Army of Islam, the other to include Russia’s proposed participants.

Once the Syrian groups sit down in Geneva, not in the same room, but at least in the same venue, with UN Special Envoy Mistura acting as go-between, then will come the time for major powers to convene.

"I won't announce a date, but we all agreed that immediately after completion of the first round of the Syria discussions, the International Syria Support Group will convene, and that will be very shortly, because we want to keep the process moving," said Secretary Kerry.

Yet he made no secret of the challenges ahead, saying that “none of us are under any illusions” and that if it were easy to find a settlement “it would have happened a long time ago.”

A particular source of contention is the future of Syria’s embattled leader, President Assad. The US has long insisted that he must eventually cede power, whereas Russia has waded into the conflict in large part to offer him support.

“We know that the war in Syria cannot end,” said Kerry, “it’s not that it will not end, it’s not that people choose otherwise — it’s that it cannot end, because he [Assad] is the magnet that attracts the violent terrorism and jihadis who will continue to come as long as he or his supporters insist he is a part in a long term future.”

Yet, in an effort to find compromise, the US has backed away from demanding that the president must leave at the beginning of any transition process.

Perhaps if the outside powers embroiled in the Syrian mayhem can take the process one step at a time and keep in mind the overarching goal of peace, progress can edge ahead.

“We are going to do everything in our power as nations that are deeply impacted by the consequences of Syria to try to push this process forward and help to act as constructive catalysts and try help Syrians to bring about the peace that they desire so much,” said Kerry.

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