At Syria talks, a workaround: Forget regime change, for now

After bitter arguments on day one of talks in Switzerland, the goals have become more modest: local truces and humanitarian aid.

Salvatore Di Nolfi, KEYSTONE/AP
Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja'afari, points to a document during a press conference at the Syrian peace talks in Montreux, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014.

Syrian peace talks look poised to pivot to more modest goals like local truces, humanitarian access, and prisoner exchanges after opening remarks drove home the depth of the rift between the Syrian regime and the opposition on a political solution.

But even this may be difficult. The first day of talks underlined a gap not only between the government and the opposition’s opinions on the future of President Bashar al-Assad, but also in their motivations for taking part in the conference, which has brought together leaders from more than 40 countries to push for a political solution to the war.

Some feared talks would collapse yesterday after a bitter opening statement by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in which he accused the opposition of “terrorism.” While Mr. Moallem and Ahmad Jarba, president of the opposition's Syrian National Coalition, traded accusations in the conference hall, fights broke out between pro- and anti-Assad demonstrators on the streets outside.

“Allah, Syria, Bashar – and nothing else,” shouted a handful of pro-Assad demonstrators, carrying posters of the president and waving Syrian flags. Nearby, anti-Assad activists played dead, wrapped in bloodied white shrouds while a man with an Assad mask stood over them. 

“Based on the intemperate statement of Moallem … it is clear that the near-term prospects for serious talks about – much less agreement on – political transition are nil,” says Frederic C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and the former Special Advisor for Transition in Syria at the US Department of State.

To prevent talks from coming to an abrupt end, the contentious issue of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s future may be set aside for now, officials in Montreux said. The focus may instead shift to urgently needed humanitarian aid and confidence-building measures. The UN estimates that 2.5 million Syrians in need of help are beyond their reach, some in areas besieged by the regime, others cut off by fighting.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy to Syria, admitted that even getting the Syrian sides to sit together would be hard.

“Do we go straight on Friday into one room and start discussion, or do we talk a little bit more separately? I don’t know yet," he said at a news conference yesterday.

“We have had fairly clear indications that the parties are willing to discuss issues of access to people in need, the liberation of prisoners, and local cease-fires."

Analysts say that this may now be the only realistic outcome of the talks, which have been widely predicted to fail.

“The best we can hope for in terms of the outcome of Geneva II is some sort of agreement on humanitarian aid to Syria,” says Lina Khatib, director of Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon. “Any hope has to be limited to very specific, small-scale achievements, nothing big and comprehensive.”

“If anything, the first day of the conference highlighted not only the gap between the regime and the opposition, but also the huge gap in what they want to achieve, and why they are there,” she adds. 

The opposition seeks the establishment of a transitional governing body that does not include Assad. But the Syrian government's goal is to regain any lost international legitimacy through its presence at the negotiating table and to rally the international community behind its narrative of fighting terrorism, Ms. Khatib says. The plan for a transitional government was outlined at the first talks in Geneva in 2012 and is the basis for this round of talks, according to the UN. 

“Right now the Assad regime doesn’t seem interested in compromise, because it sees itself in a victory position vis-a-vis the opposition,” she says.

Confidence building measures do seem within the realm of possibility. Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, said the government suggested a local truce in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and one of its fiercest battlegrounds.

The deep mistrust between the two sides will be the key challenge to such a truce because it will make it difficult to convince either side to lay down their weapons. Most rebel forces on the ground are unwilling to negotiate with the Assad-regime and have boycotted the Geneva II talks.

“[Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov conveyed the Syrian suggestions to the Americans, and he got a reply from [US Secretary of State] John Kerry that they are still awaiting reply from the armed groups in Aleppo,” Mr. Jaafari said.

Speaking to reporters in Montreux, Mr. Kerry said the US and its partners are pursuing “parallel avenues” along with the talks, but declined to say what they are. “It’s too soon to talk about what will happen after Geneva II on the first day of Geneva II,” he said. 

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