Syria peace talks a harder sell than Iran negotiations

There are discouraging signs for talks scheduled for January: the main rebel forces will not send a representative, and President Assad has less reason to compromise after recent battlefield gains.

Aleppo Media Center AMC/AP
A Syrian rebel fires a weapon towards Syrian government troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo, Syria, Nov. 9, 2013. Syria's government and opposition will hold their first peace talks on Jan. 22 in Geneva, in an attempt to halt the nearly 3-year-old civil war.

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On the heels of the diplomatic success of nuclear talks between the West and Iran, the United Nations announced a new round of talks to take place in January between Syria's government and rebel factions. But with the key rebel military group abstaining and Bashar al-Assad's forces in control of the battlefield, analysts see limited scope for diplomatic efforts, at least for the moment.

The UN announced on Monday that the "Geneva 2" talks will take place on Jan. 22 and involve representatives from both the Syrian government and rebel factions. Previous talks were held in June 2012 in Geneva. Although UN chief Ban Ki-moon did not say who would attend from the antigovernment camp, the Associated Press cites British Foreign Minister William Hague as saying that the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main rebel political group, would be there. 

But the Free Syrian Army, the largest rebel force on the ground, will not attend, Reuters reports. Saying that "Conditions are not suitable," top FSA commander Gen. Salim Idriss warned that "we will not stop combat at all during the Geneva conference or after it, and what concerns us is getting needed weapons for our fighters."

Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre think tank, told Agence France-Presse that Geneva talks have only a "50-50" chance of convening, as they are "hostage to the situation on the ground" – where things have been going well for Mr. Assad's forces.

"January 22 is still a long way off," said Richard Gowan, director of New York University's Center for International Cooperation.

"The Syrian army has been scoring new victories over the rebels, and could intensify its efforts to strengthen its military position before the talks."

James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, says that the announcement of January talks is likely borne of frustration on the UN's part, rather than a clear plan for diplomatic progress. "The UN has tried to coax the opposition to the table previously. When that didn't work, they have had to set a date to try to force them to the table. Delegations will probably attend, but will they represent those on the ground? Probably not."

Although the possibility of a diplomatic solution in Syria has gained some momentum from the P5+1 talks over Iran's nuclear program, which reached an interim agreement over the weekend, analysts warn that that success in this forum does not indicate a way forward on Syria.

The Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy notes that the US and Iran struck an agreement on Iran's nuclear program because both parties had overlapping interests – but "when it comes to Syria, the interests of the US and Iran could not be more divergent."

Syria's civil war has become a proxy for Iranian and Saudi rivalry in the region. The Saudis are eager for the secular-leaning regime of Bashar al-Assad, who belongs to the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam that the Saudi religious establishment views as an assault on the purity of Islam, to fall. They want Syria's next government to be dominated by Sunni Arabs that will at the very least tolerate the flow of money from Saudi donors to jihadi groups in Syria. The US has been tacitly backing Saudi Arabia's play (the Saudis are angry that the US isn't arming Syria's rebels, but the US is on board in public with the "Assad must go" position).

The Iranians, meanwhile, are sending money, guns, and military trainers to help Mr. Assad survive, since his government remains a rare friend in the Arab world and they fear a long-term hit to their regional interests if he falls.

In short, Iran would still see the defeat of Assad as a disaster that could have destabilizing consequences for its only other close Arab friend, Iraq. Saudi Arabia, and the US, meanwhile, would view Assad's survival as a disaster. That doesn't present much ground for compromise.

Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr warned that Iran's nuclear deal might in fact embolden the Assad government, which "had the upper hand on the ground militarily, and felt strengthened by Iran, its main ally, returning to the international fold following the agreement to suspend its nuclear programme in return for easing of sanctions."

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