Syrian government and opposition teams begin a fifth round of talks in Geneva on Thursday in an effort to end six years of war that has killed 350,000 people and devastated the country.
During the previous round of talks from January 23rd to March 3rd the sides made modest progress and they are expected to build on gains in the coming round.
First, they agreed on an agenda and modus operandi. Four topics – governance, a new constitution, elections and “terrorism” – are to be discussed simultaneously in working groups with the aim of finding common ground before devising an action plan.
Second, the opposition was forged into a single delegation. The Riyadh-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC), which had been regarded as the main opposition group, was compelled to join with two smaller, moderate groups, the Moscow and Cairo platforms.
The HNC demands the removal of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a stand rejected by the government, while the Cairo and Moscow platforms promote compromise and, in the words of the Cairo group head Jihad Makdissi, “evolution rather than revolution”.
Progress has prompted some of those outside the talks process to try to sabotage this round. The al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has led high-profile jihadi attacks on Damascus's northeastern suburbs as well as in Homs, Hama and Aleppo provinces. The aim of such operations is to pressure opposition paramilitary factions observing a ceasefire and participating in the Geneva talks to withdraw and resume the armed struggle against the government.
Dubbed internationally a "terrorist" group, Jabhat, now the most powerful jihadi faction, is excluded from a ceasefire currently in place and, in common with the Islamic State terror group, is targeted by Syrian, Russian, and United States forces.
According to an opposition source, Jabhat and its chief ally, Ahrar al-Sham, continue to receive funds and arms from Qatar, a principal regional supporter of radical groups and an opponent of the peace process.
Although a participant in the peace talks, the Saudi-sponsored Army of Islam is also taking part in the offensive east of Damascus. Such attacks not only bolster the standing of jihadi rejectionists, but exacerbate existing differences between Muslim Brotherhood and liberal HNC members.
Despite being a guarantor of the ceasefire, Turkey continues to play a double game. A dozen insurgent factions which had attended earlier talks sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey and held in the Kazakh capital, Astana, boycotted the March 14th-15th session of those negotiations, claiming Moscow and Damascus were violating the truce.
The armed groups' spokesman, Osama Abu Zaid, resigned in protest at pressure from Ankara to stay away from Astana, exposing differences among armed factions.
The Astana talks, declared an integral part of the peace process by United Nations mediator Staffan de Mistura, are intended to sustain and strengthen the ceasefire on which negotiations depend. The absence from Astana of the armed factions undermines the fifth round of talks in Geneva to some extent.
In spite of these challenges, Syrians on both sides argue progress can be made in this round. A Syrian official told The Irish Times the government was seeking to move "step by step".
Dissent within the opposition could, however, slow progress. To exert pressure on both sides, Mr de Mistura has invited to Geneva civil society groups enjoying support within Syria, where the peace process is seen as the only chance to end the war.
Damascus-based Nation Building Movement founder Anas Joudeh said civil society should become a third delegation to "reflect the interests of Syrians . . . Everybody must be involved." He stressed the importance of maintaining momentum "to give Syrians hope".
He and other experts in this field have been recruited by Mr de Mistura to broaden the talks’ base and reach. An Italian-trained lawyer, Mr Joudeh said other experts involved were “high-calibre people who can help develop the political approach” of the negotiations.
Feminist Sawsan Zakzak said the Women’s Advisory Board, to which she belongs, should participate in a third delegation as it represents the Syrian people. During the fourth round, board members met representatives of the HNC and Moscow and Cairo platforms in an effort to bridge gaps between them.
She takes a positive view of the negotiations as the goal, set by UN resolution 2254, the mandate for the negotiations, is the establishment of a secular, democratic, unified, independent Syria where women will have the same rights as men.