Seven peace talks in Geneva failed to hammer out a deal between the warring parties in Syria due to major sticking points.
This time, another round of talks will held on November 28, a second round has been tentatively tabled for December 8 — both hosted by the Swiss city — while a third round is set in Sochi, Russia.
Following is a Q&A outlining what happened before and what may happen next on the road to peace in the war-torn Middle Eastern nation.
What are the Geneva talks aiming to achieve and why have past attempts failed?
A first round will be held on November 28 followed by a second round tentatively scheduled for December 8. A third conference, which observers believe will carry the real weight, will take place soon after the second Geneva talks in the Black Sea city of Sochi under the auspices of the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Ahead of Sochi, Moscow is aiming to get all rival parties on the same page. With UN-backing, Geneva also lends the talks a greater air of legitimacy.
Russia, a key ally to the Syrian government, wants to declare “mission accomplished” before the New Year.
It has already indicated that it will be withdrawing troops from the country after it sent boots on the ground in 2016 in an unprecedented military intervention.
Observers have credited Russia with staving off the imminent collapse of Bashar Al Assad’s government.
Seven previous Geneva conferences have failed to reach a breakthrough largely because of disagreement over the Transitional Government Body that was a key goal of the agenda in previous conferences.
The opposition had insisted on Al Assad’s departure as a precondition to continuing talks — a demand that was flatly rejected by Damascus and Moscow. It has now been repositioned by the Riyadh II conference, more of a goal than a precondition.
What is different about this round?
While previous rounds were attended by junior US diplomats, this round will be attended by Assistance Secretary of State for Middle Eastern Affairs, David Satterfield.
These will also be the first talks where the regime and opposition are meeting face-to-face. Past negotiations have been held in separate rooms with negotiators shuttling between the rival sides.
What is on the agenda this time?
Elections and a new constitution. According to Ebrahim Hamidi, a senior diplomatic editor at the pan-Arab Al Sharq Al Awsat daily, Moscow wants to discuss elections and a new constitution based on a draft presented by Russian lawmakers earlier this year.
The Russians envisions “free elections under UN supervision” but also insist that Al Assad is entitled to run for one more eight-year term.
Damascus wants to limit the scope of the talks to focus on counter-terrorism and reconstruction.
“Damascus wants to delay serious political talks,” he said. This could be because it is worried Russia might cave into Western pressure for Al Assad to leave power.
However, after the defeat of Daesh in Syria and Iraq, Russia is under international pressure to provide a credible and viable political solution to end the Syrian crisis.
Who is representing the opposition?
The delegation will be represented by Nasr Hariri, a 40-year old cardiologist and former parliamentarian who chaired previous rounds of Geneva but was elected president of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) of the Syrian Opposition just last week, replacing former Prime Minister Riad Hijab.
Senior opposition figures, including Hijab, were pressured by Riyadh to resign because of their insistence that talks could not go forward without the departure of Al Assad.
Russia has seemingly convinced Ankara and Riyadh to apply pressure on the opposition to have "more realistic" demands ahead of Geneva talks.
The new team will include 10 members of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), a Turkish-backed group once seen as the only representative of the Syrian Opposition, and six (6) of the National Coordination Committees (NCC), a Syria-based opposition group composed of Arab nationalists, political independents, and Kurds.
It will also include four (4) members of the Cairo Platform, four (4) of the Moscow Platform, 16 independents, and a handful of officers from the Free Syrian Army (FSA); Yasser Abdulrahim, Bashar Al Zoubi of the Yarmouk Army, and Abdul Jabar Al Okeidi, former commander of the Aleppo Front.
Other senior figures who were recently elected into the HNC are: Basma Kodmani, a scholar at the Academie Diplomatique International and College de France; National Coordination Committee Chairman Hasan Abdul Azeem, a Cairo-backed Arabist; Washington-based activist Farah Al Atasi; celebrated actor Jamal Sulaiman; and former Syrian National Coalition President Hadi Al Bahra, a US-trained industrial engineer, who led the opposition in 2014-2015.
The new team will also include Safwan Akash of the Communist Workers Party, Badr Jamous of the Syrian National Council General Secretariat, Awad Al Ali, a defected officer who once commander of the Crime Department Branch in Damascus.
Two ranking Kurds are among the new HNC — Ebrahim Baro and Abdul Ahad Esteph of the Kurdish National Council.
Only six of them, however, will attend the Geneva talks as part of one delegation, one for each political group, while the Syrian team, like previous rounds, will be held to Damascus’ ambassador to the UN, Bashar Al Jaafari.
What did the new opposition agree to in Riyadh?
The delegates agreed on: a united country that preserves all of the state’s institutions, safeguards the rights of all minorities and ethnicities, lays the groundwork for a democratic government, and shuns all forms of foreign intervention.
They also stressed on the need for all foreign fighters to leave the Syrian battlefield, in reference, of course, to Hezbollah and Iran.
Are observers optimistic that this round will be successful?
Not really. Prominent opposition activist Asa’ad Al Achi, tells Gulf News, that the talks will be fragile and precarious.
“The regime, with recent military advances, sees no reason to engage in serious negotiations. It just wants to crush the rebellion once and for all. On the other side, the opposition is as divided as ever,” he said.