The first UN-led Syria peace talks in almost a year are in danger of getting lost in procedure, as officials obsess about who will meet whom, but behind the scenes diplomats say it’s largely up to Russia to call the tune.
Russia and the United States were the prime movers behind the last peace talks, which halted as the war heated up.
With the United States now taking a diplomatic back seat, Russia - whose military intervention turned the tide of Syria’s war and helped President Bashar al-Assad recapture Aleppo - is potentially a kingmaker.
But its endgame is unclear.
“Our task is only to stabilize the legitimate authorities and deliver a final blow against international terrorism,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday at a military ceremony as the Geneva talks began.
Moscow has sought to revive diplomacy since its air force helped the Syrian army and allied militias defeat rebels in Aleppo in December, Assad’s biggest victory in six years of war.
Russia joined with Turkey and Iran to convene intra-Syrian negotiations in the Kazakh capital Astana to reinforce a shaky ceasefire and tried to expand their remit to political aspects, even making public a proposed Moscow-drafted constitution.
With Astana handling the ceasefire, Geneva is left with the political conundrum and a UN mandate to discuss a new constitution, UN-supervised elections and transparent and accountable governance.
There is leeway for different interpretations, and it is unclear to what extent Russia is willing to put pressure on the Syrian government to reach a political deal with the opposition.
Russia supports the creation of a government of national unity, which a senior European diplomat disparagingly said meant bringing in a few dissidents to run the ministry of sports and leaving Assad’s power unchecked.
“If they really wanted to move things along, they could hand Assad his boarding card and pack him off to Caracas,” he said.