Talking just to hear themselves talk

The United Nations’ special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, announced earlier today that this week’s Syrian peace talks in Geneva–which were supposed to happen today–will instead be held on Friday. Presumably, this is because “Friday” is the last work day of the week, and he could not have announced that they were being held in, say, October–by which I mean October, oh, 2018–and still have pretended that they were this week’s talks.

It’s possible that I’m not familiar with the intricacies of international negotiations and trying to settle five year long civil wars, etc., but it seems to me that you can’t possibly conclude a successful negotiation between two warring parties when one of those two parties can’t even agree on who they are and who should represent them. And that’s pretty much what’s been happening here:

Last month, the Security Council issued a rare, unanimous show of support for negotiations to be held between the Assad government and opposition groups.

But UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is now urging countries supporting opposing sides in the conflict to redouble efforts to agree on a list of opposition groups to be invited to peace talks.

But even opposition groups set to be invited have not committed to participating in the Geneva talks.

They accuse the Assad government of not genuinely seeking a political solution, citing previous Geneva talks as being deliberately obstructive and derailed by his representatives.

Nominally, the “opposition” heading into these talks is supposed to be drawn from the collection of groups that attended that opposition team-building exercise in Riyadh last month, who came out of that conference having formed a “High Negotiations Committee” (HNC) to coordinate their approach to peace talks. But if you recall, during the Riyadh conference the jihadi rebel militia Ahrar al-Sham, one of the largest and most potent of the rebel forces, walked out. They’re not part of the HNC. Neither is Jabhat al-Nusra, which wasn’t even invited to Riyadh (openly colluding with al-Qaeda is a non-starter even for the Saudis). These two groups are the backbone of Jaysh al-Fatah, the coalition that conquered Idlib over the summer and put Bashar al-Assad on the defensive until his Russian patrons bailed him out. If, by some miracle, the rest of the rebels cut a deal with Assad, these two groups would keep fighting, and such are their capabilities, and their support among the forces actually fighting on the ground in Syria (as opposed to their minders in Geneva), that they could quickly render a deal meaningless.

Fortunately (?), this isn’t a real concern, because there’s not going to be a deal anyway. The HNC has been saying that it won’t even talk to Assad directly without an end to the Russian air campaign, which isn’t happening, and until Assad agrees to allow humanitarian aid into besieged areas like Madaya, which is also unlikely to happen, so instead the talks will be indirect. Already the outlook isn’t good.

The HNC has put forward as its chief negotiator the political head of the Jaysh al-Islam rebel faction, Mohammed Alloush. The thing is, Assad (and Russia) regard Jaysh al-Islam as a terrorist group (and while I don’t know that they can be considered “terrorists,” they’re certainly extreme Salafists). Russia, meanwhile, has been pushing for a second “opposition” group to attend the Geneva talks, made up of Kurdish and Turkmen groups plus other groups that weren’t represented in Riyadh and are friendly with Moscow. Given that Russia is all-in behind retaining Assad, or at least his government (they might eventually be willing to jettison the man himself), it’s not clear what kind of “opposition” groups they’ve been cultivating, and at least one of its proposed attendees (the secular-moderate, UK-based Madani organization, headed by Dr. Rim Turkmani) has already refused to participate.

Note that I haven’t even mentioned Iran, whose support for Assad is, if anything, stronger than Russia’s. Iran and the Saudis could barely sit around the same table with each other in October, at the international conference wherein the plans for this new round of talks was hatched, and they’re actually angrier with each other now than they were then. I also haven’t mentioned Turkey, which is probably going to flip its collective lid if this separate Russian-backed opposition group gets to attend the talks as well, seeing as how Syria’s Kurds would likely be well-represented within its ranks.

There are reports that the HNC is going to meet tomorrow in Riyadh to talk about what to do, amid some alleged threats from the United States that they will lose whatever Western support they’re getting right now if they refuse to participate in Friday’s session. And, sure, they should go. I think any talking is better than no talking, generally speaking. But you’d have to be pretty optimistic to think that this week’s talks–whether they’re held an hour from now, or tomorrow, or Friday–are going to accomplish anything.

Staffan de Mistura, the organizer of this week’s exercises in futility

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