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Geneva 4 and shuttle diplomacy in Syrian strife

Despite the continuing rigid stances there seems to be a window of opportunity with Mistura saying that the two sides have a clear agenda and will return to Geneva talks later this month

Gulf News

Three cheers must be given to Staffan de Mistura who brought together the Syrian protagonists to try and iron out a solution to end the deadly, bloody conflict. The UN Special Envoy on Syria must be congratulated also for his tenacity and persistence to bring the warring factions to establish a modicum of dialogue that would seek to end the six-year-old strife, now beginning in its seventh mind-boggling annum.

The latest Geneva 4 meeting was a bit like chalk and cheese to put it mildly. It’s a wonder how the warring parties made it till now, sitting at the UN headquarters in the Swiss city with nothing to show for it but mayhem; and bearing in mind there has been three previous international meetings — dubbed Geneva 1, 2, and 3 — but which unfortunately led to nowhere except behind-the-scenes bureaucratic recriminations.

What is striking is both parties — the so-called gregarious opposition group and which is one among many and all hand-picked by Mistura with the official government side to hammer out a future political settlement — have never actually sat directly with each other. Remarkable is the fact the two protagonists, while paying lip service to peace, have sat in two separate rooms, with the special envoy shuttling from one room to other to convey and criss-cross the views of each side to one another — negotiation by proxy.

The right phrase is “shuttle diplomacy”, an extremely tiresome exercise where thoughts, demands and point-of-views tending to jumble up the process to a never-never syndrome. Mistura had hoped this time around the parties would sit together and negotiate directly, but this was overtly over-optimistic. Although the special envoy said a “psychological barrier” was broken this round, referring to the fact the two sides sat together in the opening ceremony, no sooner had this ended, UN Syria representative and chief negotiator Bashaar Al Jafa’ari got up and left, short of walking out and giving the impression that he’d rather be elsewhere.

Such type of diplomatic negotiations need enormous goodwill. This was clearly lacking for both had come with preconceived ideas, contrary objectives and sets of ideals no one wanted to budge from. The High Negotiations Committee (HNC) lead negotiator Nassr Al Hariri already made it clear he wants a commitment on the political transition and end of Bashar Al Assad and Baathist rule. This idea was repeatedly before the meeting, during the venue and afterwards in an almost parrot-like fashion.

The government side on the other hand stated this was a wrong assumption to start with. For them political transition and the future of Syria are not linked to the end of the present regime but the end of the conflict and warring factions. Although they didn’t say it in so many words, they wanted to get back to the status quo as if nothing had happened in Syria over the last six years. But the reality check is far different — with over 300,000 killed and 12 million displaced in the country.

Given the intransigence of both parties, and bearing in mind the HNC is only one opposition group — the so-called Riyadh Platform — with at least two others, the Egypt Platform and the Moscow Platform, it is no wonder the negotiating situation is so tangled up that little progress is likely to be achieved because the objective is being lost, altered and defined all the time. The Damascus regime and its Russian supporters want to negotiate with a “single” opposition group while the HNC see themselves as the par excellence negotiators.

They feel if all of the opposition factions get together and negotiate as a single bloc, then this will dilute the demand for the ouster of Al Assad and the Baathist regime. This is precisely because they argue the Moscow Platform, for one, doesn’t believe in the end of the present regime that is seen as a sticking point for the HNC, whose members feel the only option for peace is the removal of the current Syrian president.

Thus the talks have been marred by antagonism, snags and setbacks with many having low expectations despite the fact the contending groups have already accepted UN Security Council resolution No 2254, which provides the basis for the Geneva talks and gives energy to Mistura to continue in a somewhat thankless negotiating channel.

Willingness to negotiate

Yet, despite the seeming deadlock with rigid stances continuing, there seems to be a window of opportunity this time around. Mistura has gone on record as stating that the two sides have a “clear agenda” and they will be back at the negotiating table in Geneva at the end this month. If indeed this is true, we will have to wait. Al Jafaari is keeping a stiff upper lip, saying he will consult with his government back in Damascus. Therefore at the end of the day, and after nine-days of “room-to-room diplomacy”, it can cautiously be said Geneva 4 did work out no matter how sullen the process was The road, however, is still rocky and with potholes but at least there is a willingness to negotiate regardless of content, factions that are/were excluded and the differing points of view.

There are of course continuing hurdles. There is the question of sitting together, which will have to be solved, but theoretically, if they have a “clear agenda” then this should be no problem. After all, this the first time further negotiations are promising to be held so quickly. Already Mistura and others have talked about the holding of Geneva 5. Previously protagonists met once a year or so and at the behest of a desperate United Nations calling and cajoling. There is no doubt about it, the Syrian conflict and the diplomatic moves to solve it will go down in history as possibly the most intractable, stubborn and intransigent. But if the parties are willing to meet, this would be a positive sign. However, the HNC, a motley collection of groups that includes Islamists but not hardliners like Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and Al Qaida, should be under no illusions about moving forward. They want the negotiations on the so-called three “baskets” of governance, constitution and elections to start quickly.

But these are likely to be sidelined or watered down. Both the Baathist regime and Al Jafaari want a fourth basket to be put on the agenda — that of fighting terrorism. His insistence came because of the bomb blast on two security offices in Homs that went off during the talks and the killed dozens in a bid to frustrate the talks.

Unlike the previous meetings, Russia, a supporter of the Baath government that entered the Syrian conflict in 2015 no doubt to prop the regime, is now in favour of a diplomatic settlement with its officials watching Geneva 4 carefully, having come just after the Astana talks in Kazakhstan, which it is sponsoring with Iran and Turkey.

It is indeed to be argued that if these parties, especially Iran, adopt a “hands-off” approach, then a political settlement might be reached much sooner.

With the Syrian conflict it is a waiting game. Mistura and the United Nations are being embroiled in a conflict with many dimensions. It is no wonder a solution is still so difficult to reach despite the fact that there are negotiations upon negotiations that are going on.

Marwan Asmar is a commentator based in Amman. He has long worked in journalism and has a Phd in Political Science from Leeds University in the UK.

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