The United Nations will be hosting on Tuesday a unified Syrian opposition in Geneva for the first time as the body’s eighth round of peace talks opens in a bid to end the six-year conflict.
The UN-brokered talks have achieved little since fighting broke out in 2011, but progress now looks possible with a unified opposition and the emergence of Russia as the key deal-maker.
UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura, who describes himself as a “chronic optimist”, has voiced hope that this round of talks will mark the first “real negotiation”. For real progress to be achieved, however, the rival sides will need to overcome the hurdle that has derailed past discussions: the fate of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.
Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a DC-based think tank, believes it’s “foolish to be optimistic” about resolving the Syrian crisis.
“The question is whether all sides have given up trying to win on the battlefield what they can’t win at the negotiating table. The answer to that is they have not,” he told The National.
“If the Assad regime believes it has Russia and Iran on its side and that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States aren’t willing to support the opposition any longer, they’re going to try to eradicate the opposite rather than compromise with it.”
Mr de Mistura has already directly told the main opposition grouping, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), that its demand for Mr Al Assad’s ouster “may no longer be acceptable”.
In September, Mr de Mistura said the HNC needed to be “realistic” and realise “they didn’t win the war”. Those comments infuriated the opposition.
“The fact that the opposition isn’t demanding Mr Al Assad’s removal as a precondition [to the current round of talks] suggests they recognise the reality of the Syrian leader’s strength,” Mr Rubin said.
Backed by Russia’s decisive military support, Mr Al Assad’s government has regained control of 55 per cent of the country, including major cities Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama, and around two-thirds of the population lives in regime-held areas.
The rest is carved up between rebel factions, extremists and Kurdish forces.
“Success may be in the eye of the beholder, but there is momentum for the political process,” said Andrew Parasiliti, director of the RAND Center for Global Risk and Security.
“The opposition is unified coming out of its meeting last week in Riyadh. Some may dislike that events are being driven by Russia, Iran, and Turkey and that Mr Al Assad does not seem to be leaving, but that is the reality heading into the talks,” Mr Parasiliti said.