Trump-Erdogan meeting in Washington key to Syria peace talks

As latest round of talks opens in Geneva two presidents meet at the White House

The White House meeting on Tuesday between the US and Turkish presidents, which will coincide with the opening of the fifth round of Syrian talks in Geneva, could either assist the progress made in earlier rounds or create fresh obstacles.

Donald Trump has to mollify Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been angered over Washington's decision arm the Syrian Kurdish-dominated Democratic Forces, regarded by Turkey as an offshoot of its own insurgent Kurds. If Trump fails Ankara could urge the Syrian opposition High Negotiation Committee (HNC), backed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to undermine the talks.

Speaking ahead of the new Geneva round, UN mediator Staffan de Mistura urged all interested parties to support the talks set to be attended by the government delegation, headed by Syria's UN ambassador Bashar al-Jafaari and the HNC. De Mistura believes the May 4th agreement for the establishment of de-escalation zones, sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey, has not only reduced violence across Syria but also given impetus to the talks.

Four main topics

During this round, de Mistura seeks to delve deeply into the four main topics, dubbed “baskets” – governance, a new constitution, elections and combating “terrorism”.

The talks will continue to be mediated and will take place in working groups as de Mistura argues it is too early for face-to-face negotiations. This could happen once the sides are closer together on issues.

Although Syrian president Bashar al-Assad recently dismissed the talks as “fruitless”, de Mistura pointed out that the government delegation was in Geneva and “is ready to work”. This round will last until Friday or Saturday, depending on progress, and a new round could take place during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan (May 26th-June 24th).

De Mistura argued there is “no alternative to Geneva, no hope [for an end to the war] and no political horizon, only facts on the ground”.

Weakened HNC

Facts on the ground are changing daily in favour of the government and weakening the clout of the HNC at the Geneva talks. Insurgents have withdrawn from three strategic suburbs of Damascus – Barzeh, Qaboun and Tishrin – and have opted for amnesty or travelled to al-Qaeda-ruled Idlib province in the north.

Once the government clears the Jobar suburb and the countryside east of Damascus, the threat to the capital from non-Islamic State insurgents would be removed and the army could tackle its fighters based in three southern suburbs, Yarmouk, Hajr al-Aswad and Tadamun.

Last year the Syrian army recaptured the capital's western suburbs and Aleppo, once the country's most populous city and commercial hub, giving the government control of the country's five main cities: Damascus, Aleppo, Latakia on the coast, and Homs and Hama in the centre. The government also negotiated "reconciliation" agreements with opposition-held small towns and villages, depriving insurgent groups represented in HNC of military leverage on the ground.

As the Syrian war entered its seventh year in mid-March, it was estimated 300,000 had died – about one-third regular army troops and their allies, one-third insurgents, and one-third civilians.