Preconditions Could Derail Geneva Talks on Syria

If the Syrian government and opposition fail to realize that the Syria crisis has no military solution, they will not be able to reach a settlement
UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura briefs the media on the Syria talks in Geneva on Nov. 28. UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura briefs the media on the Syria talks in Geneva on Nov. 28.

A lawmaker warned that the UN-sponsored Geneva talks on Syria could be derailed by the Syria opposition's insistence that President Bashar al-Assad be denied a role in any agreed political transition to end years of civil war.

"Currently, the opposition forces do not have the upper hand over the Syrian government. So setting such a precondition at the beginning of the eighth round of Geneva negotiations will only derail the talks and lead to their failure," Jalil Rahimi also told ICANA in a Wednesday interview.

The eighth round got underway on Tuesday with a revamped and expanded opposition team meeting with the UN envoy in Geneva, but the Assad government was conspicuously absent and Russia bemoaned back-channel diplomacy among key world powers.

The government in Damascus said its team would show up on Wednesday.

The meeting marks the latest and perhaps most-promising attempt by UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura to breathe new life into the so-far largely ineffective UN-mediated talks.

The Syrian civil war, now in its seventh year, has left over 400,000 dead, driven at least 11 million people from their homes and dragged in regional and world powers.

Speaking after he briefed key envoys from the five UN Security Council member countries behind closed doors, de Mistura confirmed to AP that the Syrian government had agreed to attend on Wednesday—after Damascus had reportedly delayed its participation.

The pro-government newspaper Al-Watan on Monday reported that Damascus would postpone its arrival, citing the opposition's position that Assad must leave at the start of any political transition—something that is sought under a UN Security Council resolution underpinning the Geneva talks.

De Mistura justified the discreet "P5" meeting by saying it was needed to keep Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States informed about his agenda and reinforce the UN-mediated peace process, which has come under a challenge from a separate, trilateral initiative cosponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey.

"Now we need to go into business," de Mistura told AP. "We need P5 support because the two delegations obviously listen to members of the P5."

***Russia Less Positive

Russia's ambassador in Geneva, Alexey Borodavkin, was less positive about the back-channel briefing.

He said Russia appreciated the "opportunity", but "at the same time, we have some doubts about this kind of format, and do not consider it an established one".

Moscow has sought to take the lead in resolving Syria's conflict by organizing parallel talks between the two sides in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

But those efforts have faced a challenge, as western powers and de Mistura insist Geneva must remain the primary track for any negotiations.

The Syrian government, with pivotal military support from Russian airpower and Iranian advisors, has made key gains on the ground over the last year.

The unexplained tardiness of Assad's delegation in Geneva appeared to reflect the government's displeasure with the opposition's insistence that Assad must step down at the start of an eventual transitional period in Syria.

The opposition says it has no preconditions for the talks, but at the same time says its goal remains to push the longtime leader aside.

***Assad's Fate  

As in previous rounds of the UN-sponsored talks, discussing Assad's future will likely be the main obstacle to any progress in Geneva.

Damascus has refused to negotiate Assad's future with the opposition and says it wants instead to focus on defeating "terrorism".

Rahimi noted that an agreement between Syria's warring sides on Assad's fate remains central to the resolution of the protracted, deadly conflict.

"It should be acknowledged that the Syria crisis has no military solution. If Syria's government and opposition do not realize this, they will not be able to reach a settlement," he said.

De Mistura stressed he would "not accept any preconditions by any party", and said the talks would be guided by a 2015 Security Council resolution mandating a political transition for Syria.

He wants an "inclusive process" that can ultimately draft and ratify a new constitution.

A Syrian Foreign Ministry official, who was not identified under Syrian government regulations, said its delegation will part starting Wednesday afternoon. The Damascus team will again be headed by Bashar Jaafari, Syria's representative at the United Nations in New York, the official said.

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