Syrian peace talks progress as agenda for negotiations agreed

Government and opposition groups to discuss formation of transitional government

United Nations special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (fourth from right) and Syrian  government representative Bashar al-Jaafari (second from left) attend a meeting of the Syrian peace talks in Geneva on Thursday. Photograph: Philippe Desmazes EPA

United Nations special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (fourth from right) and Syrian government representative Bashar al-Jaafari (second from left) attend a meeting of the Syrian peace talks in Geneva on Thursday. Photograph: Philippe Desmazes EPA

 

UN-brokered Syrian peace talks inched forward this week when government and opposition agreed on the agenda for negotiations before the weekend break, and March 20th was set for the next session.

Thanks to strong Russian backing, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has convinced the Syrian government and three opposition delegations to discuss the formation of a transitional government, which would draft a new constitution and hold elections.

In previous rounds, the government, committed to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, had refused to discuss governance and called for the issue of “terrorism” – armed opposition to Mr Assad – to be top of the agenda.

The Saudi-sponsored opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) had demanded Mr Assad’s removal and insisted on ending sieges of insurgent held-areas and delivery of humanitarian aid as preconditions for political negotiations. All preconditions have been dropped.

Intensive talks

After intensive talks with Mr de Mistura, HNC negotiator Nasr al-Hariri said political transition had been the main issue on the table. He said Mr de Mistura had said that, as a result of Russian pressure, the Syrian government had accepted the need to tackle issues including political transition, which was the most important for the HNC.

The Syrian government’s delegation head, Bashar al-Jaafari, castigated the HNC for refusing to include “terrorism” as an agenda issue and rejecting the formation of a single opposition delegation.

The two other opposition groups, the Cairo and Moscow platforms, accept the agenda without agreeing to the HNC’s demand for Mr Assad’s removal. They also agree on the addition to the agenda, at the insistence of the government and Russia, of “terrorism”.

This is opposed by the HNC as affiliated armed factions are aligned with al-Qaeda’s Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, branded a “terrorist” organisation by the UN.

Moscow Platform spokesman Hamza Monzer on Thursday confirmed the addition of “terrorism” to the agenda and called for formation of one opposition delegation “based on consensus” in which no faction would “try to dominate others”.

Common approach

This delegation should forge a common approach which would result in a deal that could be implemented. Once implementation began the role of disruptive external forces would be diminished, he stated.

His proposals have the support of Russia, the key external power involved in the negotiations, but are likely to be resisted by the HNC, which had been regarded as the “main” opposition group until this, the fourth round of negotiations. US envoy to the peace talks Michael Ratney, an appointee of the Obama administration, has reportedly left Geneva, a sign Russia is firmly in charge for the time being. The Trump White House has not yet devised a policy.

On March 14th, ahead of the next session in Geneva, government and armed opposition representatives are set to meet in Astana, Kazakistan, to shore up the fragile Syrian ceasefire and press for confidence-building measures.

Previous Astana rounds, sponsored by Russia, Turkey, Iran, and lately Jordan, have provided a foundation for the Geneva talks.