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Challenges Could Derail Syria Talks

  • Mohamed Elshinnawi

FILE - Syrian President Bashar Assad (R) speaks with United Nations envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura in Damascus, Nov. 10, 2014.

FILE - Syrian President Bashar Assad (R) speaks with United Nations envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura in Damascus, Nov. 10, 2014.

U.N. envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura says he hopes to convene peace talks between Syrian government and opposition members Friday in Geneva, but the process has been facing serious challenges because of disagreements over who should be invited and the future of Syria's president.

De Mistura has not publicly said which Syrian opposition groups will be invited to take part in the talks.

George Sabra, Deputy Chief of the Syrian opposition negotiating team, told VOA there are many challenges facing the U.N.-sponsored talks.

“Russia is attempting to impose who represent the Syrian opposition in the Geneva talks; the Syrian regime is ignoring U.N. Security Council resolution 2254 which is calling for an end to the indiscriminate use of weapons against civilians.” Sabra added “The Syrian opposition insisted that the regime should stop bombarding Syrian villages and lift its starvation siege before it can join the talks but it is being pressured to participate.”

But Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated U.S. support for the opposition. "The position of the United States is and hasn't changed," Kerry said. "We are still supporting the opposition, politically, financially and militarily."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia’s four-month air campaign backing Assad has helped ”turn the tide” in Syria where the government has been battling rebels for 5 years.

Confident Assad

Josh Landis, President of Syrian Studies Association, argues that Russian support contributed to recent military gains by Syrian President Bashar al- Assad and convinced Assad that he is winning, so his regime will not compromise in the Geneva talks.

“Russian air power has changed the balance of power and made it very difficult to convince Assad to stop fighting and to make peace.”

Secretary Kerry downplayed comments from the Syrian government indicating it would not bend on its positions heading into the talks. He also said it is ultimately up to the Syrian parties to decide the future of their country, including the role of President Assad.

Sabra ruled out any possibility of accepting a future role for Assad in any political transition.

“It would be extremely impossible to talk about a political solution in Syria with Assad as a part of it. That defies the logic of a political transition.”

Recommendations to get through

Former U.S. Ambassador Edward Djerejian acknowledges the tough challenges facing the U.N.-sponsored talks, but he offered a diplomatic solution.

“I think the compromise would probably be that Assad does not have to leave immediately, but with an understanding that there would be elements of his regime that could be involved leading to a political transition which at the end of the day Assad and his key lieutenants would not be there.”

Djerejian said “I think there are solutions but they require a major effort to get everyone on the same page to resolve the Syrian conflict.”

Robert Ford, the last U.S. Ambassador to Syria, sent his vision to rescue the upcoming talks through an open letter to Secretary Kerry.

“The administration needs to focus on developing an agreement with the Russians and other states about the issues the Syrians must negotiate." Ford added, “The U.S. and other states need to agree about a force that would robustly monitor a cease-fire, how to improve local security and what the U.N. Security Council will countenance when the cease-fire is violated.”

Ambassador Ford stressed that Syrians must compromise just as the Tunisians did, and warned against any U.S. or other foreign leaders trying to micro-manage the process, which, in his opinion, could undermine the chances for sustainable progress.

But Landis argues there is no good will to ensure any optimistic outcomes of the talks, even if all parties attended.

“I believe the upcoming Geneva talks will be in vain as the previous efforts were, simply because neither side is willing to compromise.” Landis said, “It is quite clear that Russia and Assad believe that they can achieve a conquest in the battlefield and the Syrian opposition groups still believe they can take Damascus by force.”

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