Oct 20, 2021

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Syrian peace talks are heading in direction of another failed process, or have already been failed, depending on how grim a view we take of the events unfolding in Geneva.

The Syrian opposition has called for a ‘pause’ to negotiations, which we can conclude as an equivalent to a walkout from the talks. Even the UN’s Syrian envoy Staffan de Mistura says there won’t be a new round of peace talks for at least another two to three weeks. Escalation in fighting and difficulties delivering humanitarian aid have ruined the hopes for an earlier start of the peace process. Moreover, the opposition’s chief peace negotiator, Mohammad Alloush, has resigned over the failure of peace talks to deliver any concrete results on ground.

All these signs clearly indicate that recent peace talks in Geneva turned out to be a futile exercise. From the beginning of these peace talks, there was an overall lack of good signs or even goodwill gestures. The first casualty of the Geneva peace talks was the cessation of hostilities, or a truce which was brokered by the United States and Russia to pave the way for the first peace talks attended by the warring parties. The opposition has already declared that the Syrian truce is over, which means a full resumption of fighting.

The cessation of hostilities agreement was never implemented completely. There were numerous cases of sporadic fighting from the start, which gradually intensified. But it surely helped in the delivery of much needed humanitarian aid to needy Syrians and brought relief from intense fighting to large numbers of civilians trapped between government forces and rebels.

But Syrians will now be exposed to the full fury of the war, which will turn out to be very ugly this time around. Even the foreign backers of warring parties in Syria, which were once promoting talks, are now taking sides. The High Negotiations Committee, Syria’s main opposition umbrella group, had said it was not willing to return to any talks without a full ceasefire and access for humanitarian aid.

Russia, which has shown solidarity with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the beginning, retaliated back, while foreign minister Sergei Lavrov criticized opposition for setting preconditions to their participation. Even some analysts are suggesting that just as the US provided cover for Israel, Russia is protecting Assad.

Even if renewed peace talks are launched, there is no hope of their success because there are major bottlenecks between the Syrian government and opposition.

One of the major bottlenecks is that while the opposition maintains its stand that President Assad has no role to play in future of Syria and even in the transitional government, the government’s delegation refused to even discuss the possibility that President Bashar al-Assad would step down and a transitional governing body would be formed.

Even the global and regional powers are divided over this core issue. Moscow and Tehran, Assad’s main backers, believe that any agreement between the opposition and the Syrian government should support the central government of Damascus, even if this means supporting President Assad. They argue that if President Assad leaves power with no strong leader to replace him, Syria will turn into a failed state, just like Libya. The United States and its allies oppose Assad’s stay in power, arguing that should the government of Syria continue to be led by President Assad, it would be next to impossible to assume that armed groups will put their weapons down to negotiate and cooperate with the Syrian central government.

Taking all these equations into account, it is very hard to believe that any peace talks will improve the situation on the ground and bring peace. In these current circumstances, the best hope for halting Syria’s destruction is the acceptance of agreed zones that take into account ethno-sectarian divisions and current battle lines, while devolving significant power to local communities.

While some level of international military presence, such as the United Nation’s Monitoring Force, will likely be necessary to monitor and ensure maintenance of the ceasefire, for success of any new round of talks, solid groundwork has to be made first, otherwise it’s bound to fail again.

As we draw on the lessons of the mistakes in the peacebuilding processes in Iraq, Yemen and Libya, where half-baked measures, the lack of stabilisation plans and flawed security arrangements came back to explode in the face of those too hurried in launching the peace process, after a stable ceasefire is achieved, a fresh round of negotiations should be launched during which more workable solutions for a resolution of the Syrian war can be discussed in detail. For example, creating a federal structure with greater autonomy to every region, a decentralised system of governance or even the division of Syria on sectarian lines.

It’s all up to Syria to decide what political system they want for their country. But the international community has to facilitate the Syrian people to reach to a peaceful solution to this civil war and then to reconstruct their country.