Pause in Syrian Talks Shows Peace Remains Elusive

Pause in Syrian Talks Shows Peace Remains ElusivePause in Syrian Talks Shows Peace Remains Elusive

It was hardly unexpected that the Syrian peace talks in Geneva would break off in recrimination.

But the speed at which it happened—only two days after the UN had declared them officially open—was a stark indication of just how unattainable peace in Syria remains.

On Wednesday, a few hours after the government said it had broken a siege of two government-held villages in northern Syria and cut off one of the last rebel supply lines to Turkey, the UN announced a “temporary pause” in the talks, saying they would resume in three weeks, AP reported.

The opposition blamed President Bashar al-Assad and its ally Russia. Assad’s government blamed the “amateur” opposition and its Saudi and Turkish backers. UN mediator Staffan de Mistura blamed the international community for not doing its part.

In the eyes of many observers of the five-year-old war, the lack of progress in the talks was a reflection of the continued unwillingness by all sides to make any of the concessions needed to advance the peace process.

A look at the talks and what to expect next:

  Why Failure Was Inevitable

Despite a UN Security Council resolution endorsing a roadmap for a peace process, the warring sides were still stuck on the same procedural issues and definitions that saw negotiations to end the conflict falter in 2014. The major stakeholders—the United States and Russia—have no mechanism to enforce such a roadmap.

The peace talks were sold on the promise that they would be accompanied by a major push for a ceasefire, but as the parties convened in Geneva, there seemed to be no follow-up.

On the contrary, Syrian government stepped up its offensive in northern Syria, backed by Russian airstrikes that pounded the rebels. Russia’s military involvement, which began on Sept. 30, has tilted the balance of power sharply in favor of the government.

  The Repercussions

With the diplomatic track thrown into uncertainty, the violence is likely to worsen. The opposition says it will not return to Geneva until the government halts its bombardment and lifts blockades that have led to starvation and suffering in rebel-held areas.

Assad’s backers insist that the war on “terror” will continue even if there is eventually a ceasefire.

Holding the talks sends a message to the self-styled Islamic State militant group, which has used the war to take over territory in Syria, that the government and the rebels are not going to get their act together and really come after them seriously any time soon, said Richard Gowan, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

  A Smokescreen for Battle?

The rapid advances made by Assad’s troops and allied militiamen in northern Syria during the talks were some of the most significant around the city of Aleppo in years.

Troops closed in on the city, Syria’s largest, getting nearer to their goal of completely encircling its rebel-held eastern part and cutting it off from supply lines to Turkey.

Opposition activists reported more than 500 targets hit by Syrian and Russian planes in one of the most intensive air campaigns since Moscow’s intervention began.

“Quite simply, the Geneva talks have been a smokescreen,” said an editorial on Thursday in Lebanon’s Daily Star.

  The Russia-Turkey Factor

As tensions continue to rise between Turkey and Russia, what Ankara does next is a wild card determining the direction of the conflict in the coming days and weeks.

The rebels supported by Turkey have taken a major beating in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Latakia. Russian airstrikes along the coast have sent thousands of ethnic Turkmen fleeing toward safety in Turkey.

On Thursday, the Russian military said it has “reasonable grounds” to suspect that Turkey is making intensive preparations for a military invasion of Syria.

Turkey is determined to clear the IS group from a stretch of territory it holds along the Syrian side of its border. By invading northern Syria, Turkey may be betting on strengthening its rebel proxies in the area and preventing the main Kurdish militia from filling any void created by the IS. But any Turkish incursion into Syria is risky and likely to lead to a clash with Russia.

Saudi Arabia, a main supporter of the rebels, also said on Thursday it is ready to send ground troops to Syria to fight IS militants if coalition leaders agree to that during an upcoming meeting in Brussels. Such an eventuality would mark a major escalation of the conflict.

  Effect on Syrian Donor Conference

The diplomatic setback and intensified military bombardments increased the urgency among world leaders meeting on Thursday at a donors’ conference in London to help millions of war victims.

Those at the conference pledged more than $10 billion to help the 4.6 million Syrians who have sought refuge in neighboring countries, including Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.