Syria peace talks as key a part of proxy wars as battles on ground

Analysis: Blame for derailed negotiations is being passed between the powers involved

UN envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura announces the suspension of peace talks in Geneva on Tuesday. Photograph: Martial Trezzin/Keystone via APi

UN envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura announces the suspension of peace talks in Geneva on Tuesday. Photograph: Martial Trezzin/Keystone via APi

 

The main Syrian opposition and government have traded blame for the suspension of UN mediated talks to end the four-year old war in Syria, but sponsors and supporters of the sides bear the main responsibility.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura announced on Tuesday he was suspending the talks, taking place in Geneva, until February 25th. He said the talks had not failed but needed immediate help from international backers led by the US and Russia.

The talks had been due to begin on Monday of last week but, announcing their postponement then until Friday, de Mistura said contacts over invitations involving US, Russian and regional foreign ministers were “still ongoing”.

This comment exposed the fact the peace process was not “Syrian-led and Syrian-owned”, as specified in UN Security Council resolution 2254, adopted on December 18th, 2015, which provided the basis for the Geneva talks.

The talks are, instead, as much a part of the proxy wars – US/Europe versus Russia and Saudi Arabia versus Iran – waged in Syria as are battles on the ground. This is why de Mistura’s first round of talks has failed. When he sent out invitations on the 26th, he appeared to deviate from instructions laid down in 2254 which called for the inclusion of “the broadest possible spectrum of the opposition”.

Having delayed the talks by demanding it be regarded “sole” opposition representative, the western-backed, Saudi Arabia-based High Negotiations Committee (HNC) was accorded the status of “main” opposition group.

Although the HNC contains representatives of three insurgent factions, giving it military clout, its basic political component, the National Coalition, has no support within Syria, while Syria-based member factions have fractured over joining the HNC.

At the insistence of US/Saudi ally Turkey, the Arab-Kurdish Democratic Council was excluded. This alliance not only represents the most effective anti-Islamic State fighting force but also contains Kurdish and Arab figures respected in Syria. Representatives of the women’s committee formed ahead of the talks and civil society were classified as advisers and consultants rather than negotiators, although they enjoy some Syrian credibility.

Ceasefires and sieges

Due to HNC insistence, de Mistura has gravitated towards giving priority to humanitarian issues and ceasefire without, so far, making them a precondition for talks. Under 2254, the imposition of a nationwide ceasefire should take place as soon as government and opposition representatives “have begun initial steps towards a political transition”.

The Syrian government’s chief negotiator, UN ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari, argued preparations were not fully in place when the talks opened. Jaafari said the list of “terrorist groups” operating in Syria had not been compiled in line with instructions issued by a mid-November meeting in Vienna which issued the roadmap affirmed by 2254.

Damascus, Moscow and Tehran consider two HNC constituents – Saudi-founded Army of Islam and Ahrar al-Sham – “terrorist” groups. Jaafari has requested a list of opposition individuals and groups before talks resume.

Having failed to win the battle over opposition representation, the government backed by Russia appears to be pursuing a “military solution” by carrying on with the war around Aleppo, in the south and the centre of the country, to strengthen Damascus’s position on the ground – and at the negotiating table.

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