Syria talks may surprise by meeting the low bar of expectations

GENEVA: No breakthrough was promised at Syria peace talks in Geneva, and no breakthrough has occurred. But as the first U.N.-led talks in almost a year neared their end on Friday, neither side has walked away and both claim small wins.

U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura has not yet got the rival negotiators to talk to each other, but has met them sequentially over seven days to try to agree how to structure future rounds and keep the process alive.

He gave them a working paper at the outset, laying out his ground rules.

“I would hope that by the end of this round we would have a deeper shared understanding of how we can proceed in future rounds in discussing each issue basket,” it said, referring to his plan to segment the talks into three main topics.

Syrian government negotiator Bashar al-Ja’afari has pushed to add “counter-terrorism” as a fourth topic, alongside the formation of a new constitution, new elections and reformed governance. Ja’afari says the demand has been accepted by de Mistura, though there has been no confirmation by the mediator.

“Seven days for finding an agenda is not a waste of time,” said Ja’afari, a veteran negotiator whose day job is ambassador to the U.N. in New York.

His opponent, chief opposition negotiator Nasr al-Hariri, also thinks things are going his way, with a claim that Ja’afari has conceded to talk about “political transition” – previously a toxic phrase for the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

“The political process is not an easy process, it cannot be concluded in one or two weeks. More effort is needed, more time is needed,” Hariri said.


Past peace efforts have blown up, often as a fractured opposition succumbed to pressure from events on the battlefield, having failed to penetrate Ja’afari’s steely intransigence.

The latest round could still fail, but it at least rode out the fallout from a militant attack on two security offices in the city of Homs last Saturday that killed dozens and which de Mistura said was a deliberate attempt to derail the talks.

The chances of success this time are still unclear.

“It’s up in the air at this stage. De Mistura is keeping his cards close to his chest and may have something up his sleeve,” said one Western diplomat.

Russia, which is seen as holding the balance of power, is also sending mixed signals. A senior Russian diplomat met Hariri and other opposition members, whom Assad’s government regards as terrorists, but Russia’s Foreign Ministry later accused the opposition of trying to sabotage the talks.

Moscow has held parallel negotiations in coordination with Turkey and Iran in the Kazakh capital Astana to reinforce a shaky ceasefire and has tried to expand the scope to cover political aspects such as a discussing a new constitution.

A new round of Astana talks is due on March 14, and Russian officials said this week Geneva negotiations could resume on March 20.—Reuters