This Wednesday afternoon in Geneva, attempts are due once more to bring about talks on Syria. Well into the second week of an imperfect but partially successful semi-cessation of hostilities, will it be the political arena in which combat resumes?
These diplomatic efforts are of course not for the resumption of talks as some in the media have described them but actually to try to get them going. In February, there were talks about having proximity talks, to lead to direct talks with representatives of the Syrian regime and an opposition delegation for the first time since 2013. Sadly, these did not materialize and to save the whole process, UN special envoy, Staffan de Mistura announced their suspension until 25 February.
The resumption in efforts to hold indirect talks were scheduled to start on 7 March, delayed to 9 March and now possibly delayed to 15 March. De Mistura says the 9 March date was only “pencilled in”. It seems all agreements on Syria, all dates, all commitments are at best just “pencilled in”. Red lines of course were simply there to be erased and ignored.
The head of the opposition High Negotiations Committee, Dr Riyad Hijab stated on 7 March that “the current conditions are not favorable for a resumption of negotiations.” Leaving aside the issue that negotiations did not even start, this begs a huge question.
In such a bitter protracted conflict as the Syrian, are there favorable conditions for negotiations? It would be like waiting for the Atlantic Ocean to have no waves or for snow in Riyadh.
What there is - is a need for negotiations. The war has to end for the sake of Syrians if for nobody else. Given that none of the sides looks like it can win, these conflicts will end with talks and a deal eventually.
Syrians fervently dream of an end of the last five years of hell with the caveat that the majority will not accept such devastation just to return to the ancient regime or some extremist tyrannyChris Doyle
From an opposition perspective perhaps the talks might have been more optimal before the Russian military intervention in September but no doubt the conditions were not right then either. Will waiting and holding out benefit Syrians? Might it just convince Russia to push ever harder for an all out crushing victory by overwhelming force.
The cessation of hostilities has shown Syrians just a glimpse of what peace might feel like. Where fighting did calm down, Syrians were able to come out of their shelters, visit families and friends and do things that had been impossible for weeks, months or years.
Yet this is fragile. Reports indicate that Russian planes have mostly been grounded but not all Syrian regime aircraft. The shaky cessation of hostilities has to become a proper delineated ceasefire with proper modalities and monitors. The absence of fighting must become a norm not a one-off, and where productive economic life can start to replace the dominant war economy.
Aid has begun to enter besieged areas where up to a possible million people have been eking out an existence. Since the Munich meeting, the UN has delivered 236 aid trucks benefitting 115,000 people.
It aims to get another 225,000 people by the end of next week. This is a considerable success given the low starting base and must be built on. The sieges are not lifted and the delivery of aid must be speeded up. Many issues can be addressed such as the failure to vaccinate up to half Syria’s children.
The most uplifting moment was last Friday when over 100 protests took place across Syria in non-regime held areas. It was 2011 once again. The popular grassroots Syrian desire for change undimmed by the carnage. Syrian hopes were voiced once more having been ignored against the background of competing ambitions that tore Syria apart.
Those threatened by this are those that object to popular will. The Syrian regime will take little comfort that protests were not in the areas it controlled and will fear the day they resume in their own backyard. Jabha Al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, tried to suppress demonstrations in Idlib.
Above all, these are exactly the same parties who fear the end of hostilities. Syrians fervently dream of an end of the last five years of hell with the caveat that most, in my view the majority, will not accept such devastation just to return to the ancient regime or some extremist tyranny.
The regional power brokers are still reluctant to accept that outright “victory” is not achievable. Putin needs an exit, but one on Russia’s terms
The current lull in fighting is a fragile moment, nigh impossible to replicate in the near future. Far from being unfavorable conditions, surely these are the only times when political steps forward can be made.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.