Syrian talks resume but an escalating war may tweak agenda
A Russian helicopter flies over the Temple of Bel in the historic city of Palmyra, Syria. Photo: Reuters
A Russian helicopter flies over the Temple of Bel in the historic city of Palmyra, Syria. Photo: Reuters

Syrian talks resume but an escalating war may tweak agenda

The parties to the conflict in Damascus persist with peace negotiations in Geneva, but conditions inside and outside the country have changed since they last met

March 24, 2017 12:55 PM (UTC+8)

The fifth round of United Nations-mandated peace talks on Syria, known as Geneva V, has begun in Switzerland. For many, this is barely newsworthy, especially in light of the military developments in the north of Syria, the upcoming battle against ISIS in Raqqa and Wednesday’s terrorist attack in London.

Few are pinning their hopes on the Geneva peace process that commenced in January 2014, least of all the Syrian negotiators. They see the talks as nothing but due diligence, done to please their backers in Moscow and Washington.

There are a few novelties, however, that may make these talks different.
The first is the massive escalation in east Damascus, to the point of being the most serious situation there since 2012.

This has resulted in large incursions into Abbasid Square, followed by car bombings and the shelling of residential neighborhoods with mortars emplaced in the rebel-held suburb of Jobar, 2km northeast of the Old City.

Low-flying warplanes roam the Damascus sky, ripping through plumes of dark smoke and striking at Faylak Al Rahman and the Fateh Sham Front, the two rebel factions that are leading the offensive, while spreading fear and panic in the Syrian capital.

The attack on Damascus has raised eyebrows there. How is it possible, despite five years of non-stop bombardment of Jobar and two years of heavy Russian military presence? Weren’t the rebels in the countryside around Damascus supposed to be on the point of collapse?

Clearly the fighters, with money, arms and acumen, have proved that despite two years of Russian support, no place is immune from rebel attack, and that Damascus is still dangerously situated in the line of fire.

The attacks are too small to bring down the Syrian government, but they will certainly affect the negotiations in Geneva. Since the Russians joined the fight in 2015, Syrian government negotiators have had little reason to bend on any of the main issues, believing that their side is winning the war.

Supporters of the Syrian opposition hope that this will change after the recent escalation in Damascus.

The second novelty is that the situation on the Syrian-Israeli border seemed to become more tense right before Geneva V, as Israel used its Arrow system for defense against missiles on March 17, shooting at a Syrian anti-aircraft missile aimed at Israeli warplanes that had attacked deep within Syria.

The warplanes were reportedly striking a convoy carrying weapons meant for Hezbollah. Nearly 48 hours later, Israel mounted an air attack on a vehicle in the Syrian-held portion of Golan.

The firing of the anti-aircraft missile was the first armed response by Syria to an Israeli attack in decades, even though Israel has mounted dozens of such attacks since the present conflict began in 2011.

Russia summoned the Israeli ambassador in Moscow and reprimanded his country. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman announced that Israel would destroy the Syrian air defense system if it launched another missile against Israeli warplanes. The confrontation doesn’t constitute a major crisis, but it could snowball, as others have in the past, and so has the potential to kill the Geneva process.

The third novelty is the US attitude to Geneva V under President Donald Trump. The negotiation process was the brainchild of John Kerry when he was US secretary of state. Kerry attended all international meetings related to Syria when he was in charge of foreign affairs under president Barack Obama.

But Kerry’s successor as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, skipped Geneva IV and is likely to skip Geneva V, sending his deputy assistant secretary instead.

During the last round of talks, Tillerson’s subordinate was relatively quiet and eventually left early, letting Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov do all the bargaining. In his first major announcement about foreign policy on Wednesday, Tillerson spoke of defeating ISIS while emphasizing his favorable view of Islam. He did not say a word about Syria. Since he took office in late January, Trump has not said a word about Syria, either.

The Trump administration has three main aims in Syria. The first is to eradicate ISIS. The second to empower the Syrian Kurds, who are essential in the war against ISIS. The third is to eject Hezbollah and Iran from Syria. Geneva V is simply not the priority.

So Trump seems to have handed his Syrian portfolio to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, letting Putin play whatever endgame suits him, regardless of how unsatisfactory this might be to allies of the Syrian opposition such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and France.

US troops crossed the Iraqi border into Syria in mid-March, bent on crushing ISIS in its capital, Raqqa, on the Euphrates River. The US force included 600 Marines and Army Rangers. They and US-backed Kurdish militias, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, have converged on Raqqa and have taken the Euphrates Dam, west of the city. The battle for Raqqa will begin on April 1.

These operations, rather than the Geneva process, are the priority for the US. It does not matter to the Trump administration whether or not the Syrians can agree to a new constitution or a formula for sharing power that loosens the grip on the country the government has had for the past five decades.

In light of all the military developments, these political issues are suddenly becoming too miniscule for all the main stakeholders in the war in Syria. According to UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, Geneva V will discuss four matters.

One will be a transitional government, to share power between the government and its opponents, in line with a UN Security Council resolution.

The second matter will be a constitution written by Russia, which gives rebels the right to co-administer cities and towns under their control while keeping the government in Damascus but slightly amending the powers of the president.

The third will be parliamentary and presidential elections to be held once a new constitution comes into effect. The fourth will be counter-terrorism measures needed for the war against ISIS.

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