[Published here on May 19, 2017]
A new round of Syria peace talks closed Friday with little visible progress towards ending the country’s conflict, as tensions boiled between the warring sides over a US-led bombing raid.
The UN-backed negotiations in Geneva were the latest effort to produce a political solution to the war, which has displaced millions and claimed more than 320,000 lives since 2011.
UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura hailed “incremental progress” in his separate discussions with the government and the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC).
“This round of talks, there is less rhetoric, more business-like atmosphere,” he told reporters, adding that he expected to convene a new round of talks next month.
But the sluggish negotiations were eclipsed by American accusations of new regime atrocities at a prison and the bombing of a pro-government convoy by US-led coalition warplanes.
De Mistura acknowledged there had not been time during the four days of indirect talks to delve into all the “four baskets” on the agenda: the constitution, governance, elections, and “combating terrorism.”
Instead, he had convinced the warring sides to set up expert committees that would discuss constitutional issues in parallel to the negotiations.
The head of the government delegation to Geneva Bashar al-Jaafari said the technical meetings were “the only result from this round.”
HNC delegation head Nasr al-Hariri also said the talks had produced little, but stressed that “to keep the Geneva process alive is an achievement”.
Hopes for a breakthrough were already dim when the negotiations opened on Tuesday, amid US accusations the government had built a crematorium at a Damascus prison to cover up evidence of thousands of murdered detainees.
The fate of President Bashar al-Assad has also remained a major stumbling block, with the HNC insisting on his departure as part of a political transition and the regime brushing off the demand as a non-starter.
Asked about the stalemate, a western diplomat hailed Friday that at least “nothing went dramatically wrong” during the latest round of talks.
But the US-led coalition air strike on pro-government forces in Syria did stir up tensions, with Jaafari describing it as a ‘massacre’. Damascus ally Moscow also slammed the strike as ‘unacceptable’.
The HNC however welcomed the “robust action against the foreign forces who have turned Syria into a killing field.”
The international alliance — which usually strikes the Islamic State militant group — for the first time hit regime-allied forces as they headed toward a remote coalition garrison near the border with Jordan. The coalition said the convoy “posed a threat to US and partner forces.”
Syrian state media gave no precise toll in the attack, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, reported eight killed, “most of them non-Syrian.”
The event certainly did not ease de Mistura’s task in Geneva, where years of diplomatic efforts have failed to produce any concrete momentum towards ending the devastating conflict.
Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011 with widespread demonstrations against Assad, but has since evolved into a bloody war that has drawn in world powers on all sides.
Rebel forces have received backing from Gulf states, Turkey, and the West, while the Syrian army is bolstered by Russia, Iran, and fighters from neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq. Russia, Iran, and Turkey are co-sponsors of a parallel negotiations track in the Kazakh capital Astana.
Earlier this month, they agreed to create four “de-escalation zones” across some of Syria’s bloodiest battlegrounds, and observers said de Mistura would be scrambling to match Astana’s momentum.
The western diplomat in Geneva said the UN’s initiative on constitutional meetings was an effort to “get people into substance.”
“This is about the special envoy keeping the Geneva process warm and relevant. There’s been a lot of talk about Astana lately, but this is actually the main show for solving the Syrian conflict,” the diplomat said.