The Geneva Code: What Syria negotiators say, and what they mean

Syria’s political opponent had a different understanding of many terms spoken in Geneva

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Syria’s political foes are beginning to speak a shared language at peace talks in Geneva to end their country’s devastating civil war, but the words they utter at the negotiating table have diametrically different meanings to the two sides.

With the first round of talks now ended, here is a guide to deciphering the ‘Geneva Code’ - terminology that President Bashar al-Assad’s government delegates and the opposition both use - and the contrasting interpretation each side attaches to their words.

Geneva 1

This is a communique issued after a June 2012 meeting of world powers in the same Swiss city that is hosting the current talks. It called for a “sustained cessation of armed violence” and a political transition led by a “transitional governing body,” which should be formed by mutual consent.

International mediator Lakhdar Brahimi says the communique forms the bedrock of his efforts to end the civil war. At the heart of it is the theme of political transition.

But the two sides read Geneva 1 very differently.

The opposition says the call for transition means the talks must lead to Assad’s departure - an assertion the government disputes.

The government accuses the opposition of cherry-picking from Geneva 1, focusing exclusively on the question of transition and ignoring the stipulation for a ceasefire.

It also says Geneva 1 was agreed when the conflict had different dynamics, saying it is “not a sacred text” and suggesting it is no longer the blueprint for a settlement.

Fighting terrorism

The word terrorism does not appear in the Geneva 1 communique, but the government delegation says it is the primary and urgent issue at these talks - known as Geneva 2.

So who is fighting terrorism in Syria?

While al-Qaeda-linked jihadi fighters have imposed control over swathes of rebel-held areas in northern and eastern Syria, officials have in the past described all armed insurgents as terrorists. So fighting terrorism is, for the government, synonymous with battling and defeating the rebels.

The opposition argue that fighting terrorism is what the anti-Assad rebels are doing in their clashes with the most prominent al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They accuse Assad’s air force and artillery of sparing ISIS bases from bombardment.

Transitional governing body

Dispute over this body is perhaps the key disagreement at Geneva. The Geneva 1 accord called for it to be set up to oversee political transition and said it should comprise members of the present government, opposition and other groups.

It said the body would “exercise full executive powers.”

The opposition says that means there is no role for Assad in the future rule of Syria. But the government rejects the idea of the transitional body outright. Officials have spoken of a possible government of national unity, but Assad has ruled out a role for the opposition in exile, suggesting it would look remarkably similar to Syria’s current government.


The two sides don’t even agree on who the opposition is.

The opposition delegation, put together by the National Coalition, is drawn from a relatively narrow base of the president’s opponents. It has no authority over the large and powerful base of Islamist rebels in Syria and contains no members of the Damascus-based opposition, which it sees as too tolerant of Assad.

While the anti-Assad group of powers known as the “Friends of Syria” declared the Coalition in December 2012 to be the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, government delegates decline to bestow them any recognition.

Ministers refer archly to “the other side” at Geneva, saying at best they represent only a small part of Syria’s opposition.

“Who are they? Who do they represent?” asked Assad’s adviser Bouthaina Shaaban.

Ceasefires and detainees

Brahimi had hoped to use the opening days of the talks to make progress on confidence-building measures such as humanitarian access, local ceasefires and prisoner exchanges.

Here again, the two sides see the issues through a different prism.

The government says the very notion of a ceasefire is inappropriate because it applies to conflicts between states. While it did float the idea of a ceasefire in the northern city of Aleppo two weeks ago, Western diplomats say the terms it sought amounted more to a rebel surrender than a truce.

For their part the opposition’s minimal sway over fighters inside Syria means they do not have the muscle to guarantee rebels observe a deal to hold fire.

When Brahimi raised the issue of detainees, the opposition said it had a list of more than 47,000 missing people whose release it was seeking. The government says it has seen a much smaller list and says the vast majority the people identified had either been released or were never detained.