Round six of United Nations-brokered talks aimed at ending Syria’s six-year civil war are getting underway in Geneva on Tuesday. Here is a short guide to the intra-Syrian negotiations, which are set to run until May 19.
Who is in Geneva for round six?
Similar to the previous round on March 23-31, there will be delegations from the Syrian government and the opposition, represented in part by the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC), and the Moscow-Cairo group of pro-Russian and regime-tolerated opposition members. Staffan de Mistura, the Swedish-Italian diplomat who is the UN special envoy to Syriaexternal link, is the referee.
What are they talking about this time?
In the past, the talks in Geneva have stalled over the question of whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would have to step aside as part of a political transition. But De Mistura has managed to persuade the warring parties to discuss other points.
Despite little apparent progress in the previous round, the two sides have agreed to discuss a new constitution, reformed governance, new elections and the fight against terrorism, as outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 2254external link.
I’m confused. Aren’t Syrian peace talks also taking place in Astana, Kazakhstan?
Two parallel processes are ongoing. De Mistura and his team want to keep the Geneva process, which began in 2012external link, both alive and relevant alongside talks in Astana led by Russia, Turkey and Iran, and amid the fast-moving situation on the ground in Syria.
Last December, Russia, Turkey and Iran met in the Kazakh capital and agreed to a nationwide ceasefire in Syria, which is broadly holding. At the beginning of May, the three countries agreed in Astana to set up four “de-escalation” zones in the major areas of conflict in western Syria, which are set to last for six months.
Syria says it will abide by the terms of the Russian plan but political and armed opposition groups rejected the proposal. Violence reduced somewhat after the de-escalation zones were announced last week, but heavy fighting persists in some areas. Assad’s government has been steadily defeating pockets of armed rebellion near the Syrian capital Damascus, with the help of Russian airpower and Iranian-backed militias.
De Mistura told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday that the two peace processes are working in tandem: “We want to make sure both are working in sync. Any de-escalation cannot be sustained unless there is a political horizon.”
Is the Geneva peace process still relevant, and what are the chances of any breakthroughs?
De Mistura says he hopes the Astana agreement will bring about “a significant de-escalation in violence and help shape an environment conducive to the political intra-Syrian talks in Geneva”.
The Geneva talks will “go into more detail and to be more business-like in our meetings and the way we hope to get progress”, he said. But he admits that there are still “substantial differences” between the two sides.
Meanwhile, on May 11, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Belarusian TV channel ONT that the Geneva talks were just a “meeting for the media” and that “there is nothing substantial in all the Geneva meetings”. For the sixth round, some 80 journalists are expected, compared with 140 for the previous round.
De Mistura refused to comment on Assad’s remarks but noted: “Why would Assad send 15-18 officials led by a very senior and experienced diplomat [Bashar al-Jaafari] for several rounds to discuss issues on the political process if he didn’t believe that they are interested in potentially getting involved in the political process? The meetings so far with the Syrian delegation are much more substantive than general comments made for the cameras. But facts will prove it.”
Aron Lund, a researcher at the US-based think tank Fondation Century, was more critical: “Despite their strong symbolic value, the Geneva talks are not progressing visibly,” he told AFP. “In practice the Geneva process has been largely overshadowed by that of Astana. At least, until now.”
The map below shows where the Intra-Syrian talks are taking place in Geneva and where the respective delegations are staying.
Will the opposition and government be actually talking face to face in Geneva?
No. De Mistura again prefers proximity talks. He will be shuttling between the two parties in separate rooms at the Palais des Nations headquarters in Geneva.
But this time the talks will be slightly different, he said. “The meeting rooms will be smaller and meetings more interactive, proactive and more frequent. Certain subjects will be focused on to get more movement from the four baskets under discussion.”
What’s the situation on the ground in Syria?
With the help of Russia and Iranian-backed militias, the Syrian government has gained the military upper hand in the six-year conflict. Efforts over the past year to halt the war have largely fallen flat.
Since March 2011, the conflict has killed an estimated 320,000 people, forced more than half of all Syrians to leave their homes and left large parts of the country in ruins. An estimated 4.9 million Syrians have fled the country and more than six million are internally displaced. The UN says about 625,000 people are living in besieged areas in Syria, 80% of them by forces loyal to Assad, while 4.5 million are in areas hard to reach with aid.
The UN says the interim Astana deal has led to a reduction in fighting and aerial attacks and rapid progress has been reached on agreements covering prisoner releases and de-mining. But aid convoys were only being allowed in at the rate of one per week, with no permission letters coming from the government.