Geneva: The first United Nations mediator who tried to broker peace in Syria declared it “mission impossible” and abandoned the effort. That was seven years and hundreds of thousands of deaths ago.
Now, as Mediator No. 4 prepares to try again, diplomats appear to be setting their sights lower and choosing their language carefully. In recent weeks, they spoke only of “a glimmer of hope” and of “a door opener to a political process.”
And that was before the following happened:
- President Donald Trump ordered nearly all US forces to withdraw from northeast Syria.
- With the United States no longer an obstacle, Turkish forces swept across the border and pushed back a Kurdish militia that had been a US ally.
- Turkey and Russia reached a deal to carve up northeastern Syria.
- And, perhaps most important for the new talks, Bashar Al Assad suddenly appeared more firmly ensconced in power than he had in years.
Despite the turmoil, for the first time in years, Syrian regime and opposition delegates will meet this week to weigh the devastated country’s future.
On Thursday, after months of intensive but low-key diplomacy, the UN special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, plans to bring 150 Syrians to Geneva. There, they will begin work on a constitutional committee intended to shift attention from the battlefield to what happens when, sooner or later, the fighting in their country stops.
Pedersen’s immediate goals are modest. He does not expect to achieve a peace, he said in an interview, but reforming Syria’s constitution, could serve as “a door opener to a political process.”
“We all understand that the constitutional committee itself will not bring a solution to the conflict,” he said.
The Geneva talks are meant to be a first step under a UN Security Council mandate that calls for a nationwide cease-fire and elections under UN supervision.
A senior State Department official said Monday that the United States and other nations had several points of leverage to try to get Al Assad to work on a political settlement. The official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, said that could include keeping reconstruction assistance from Al Assad’s regime, barring Syria’s reentry into the Arab League and refusing to restore diplomatic ties with Damascus.
When the new talks were announced at the UN General Assembly in September, some in the West still hoped that Al Assad’s grip on his country might be loosened in any eventual settlement.
“There may be a glimmer of hope that this conflict can be ended the right way,” James F. Jeffrey, the State Department’s special envoy on Syria policy, told reporters.
But just days later, October 6, Trump announced the withdrawal, clearing the way for a Turkish military move against the Kurds. That decision in effect redrew the battle lines and strengthened Al Assad’s negotiating hand. It gave him and Russia, his strongest ally, control over parts of the country the Syrian regime had relinquished years ago.
The US military withdrawal paved the way for joint Russian-Turkish security patrols in formerly Kurdish-held territory in northeast Syria, under a deal struck last week between President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.
Al Assad’s regime is also now negotiating directly with Kurdish fighters in the northeast, a region Syrian troops had once all but given up.
Russian air strikes on the few remaining rebel enclaves in Syria’s Idlib and Hama provinces Thursday raised concerns that Erdogan may have agreed to a bargain that will also gird Al Assad’s grasp in the northwest. Erdogan had previously provided backing to some of the rebels who have fought Al Assad in that region for more than eight years.
“At some point, one has to come to terms with the fact that the international effort of 2011 to change the regime, to change the political nature of the country, has failed,” said Robert Malley, who oversaw Middle East policy at the White House during the Obama administration and is now president of the nonprofit International Crisis Group in Washington.
“There has to be a reassessment of what is realistic to do in Syria,” he said, “given the balance of power on the ground.”
It has been seven years since the first UN mediator, Kofi Annan, gave up on peace talks. Now it is Pedersen’s turn. For the first time in years, he said, the United Nations, Damascus and the Syrian opposition have agreed on an approach.
The constitutional committee negotiated by the United Nations includes three delegations: one from the Syrian regime, one from the opposition, and one drawn from civil society and different ethnic and religious groups.
The uncertainty surrounding the process is such that the United Nations has not given a detailed timeline for the talks, and the Syrian delegates have no idea how long they will be staying in this lakeside city.
Pedersen said he expects the 150 committee members to spend several days laying out their visions and aims for the constitution and then hand the work over to a smaller body of 45 people. To build confidence in the process, he has pushed all the parties to release detainees, but the results have been meager: freedom for 109 people. The biggest release, in February, involved 42 people, with the regime setting free 20 detainees, 11 of them women and two of them children presumed to have been born in captivity.
“I had hoped for more,” Pedersen said. “I want much bigger releases in future, particularly women and children.”
To take the political process forward, he said, “we need a nationwide cease-fire, and this is the opportunity to work seriously on that.”
Opposition delegates are not holding their breath. “There is no indication showing the regime is inclined to detente,” said Basma Kodmani, a member of the Syrian opposition’s negotiating team. “There’s no sign of goodwill.”