Syria's warring parties are going home with "a clear agenda" for future negotiations, a U.N. mediator said Friday, as a fourth round of intra-Syrian talks wound up after nine days of intense discussions, largely mired in matters of "procedure" interspersed with issues of "substance."
Though no breakthrough on a political settlement was achieved and none was expected, the general mood among the participants was one of relief and a slight sense of accomplishment that this round of peace negotiations had ended without any dramatic walkout by either the government or opposition delegations, as has been the case previously.
"It has not always been easy going," Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy for Syria, said in Geneva. "We had some difficult, tough meetings, but we also had some very constructive meetings."
De Mistura predicted there would be a lot of posturing and negative rhetoric from the opposing sides about the state of the negotiations, now that the latest round had ended. However, he generally dismissed such theatrics as "a part of politics."
Dialogue 'is what matters'
"I heard what I heard during the private discussions, in formal and informal discussions," de Mistura said. "I had a feeling that the sides want to find a dialogue. That is what matters."
"And," he added, "that gives me some feeling that we are moving in the right direction."
De Mistura will travel to New York to report on the talks to the U.N. secretary-general and the Security Council. While there, he said, he hoped to set a date to resume the next round of Syrian talks this month.
When the parties return to Geneva, he said, they will be pursuing a framework agreement based on Security Council Resolution 2254, which forms the basis for a political transition to a postwar government.
This formula contains three "baskets" of issues to be fleshed out: credible, nonsectarian governance; the drafting of a new constitution; and free and fair elections under U.N. supervision.
Debate over 'terrorism'
De Mistura said the government and opposition delegations also agreed to include a fourth "basket" of issues, addressing "strategies related to counterterrorism, security governance and medium-term confidence building measures."
The Damascus government's delegation in Geneva reportedly had insisted that anti-terrorism measures must be added to the agenda as a condition for continuing negotiations.
Syrian opposition groups initially objected to this provision, but later agreed to go along after de Mistura reportedly assured them that the government's use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons against civilian targets would be part of the discussions.
Syria's six-year civil war has taken a heavy toll in lives lost, people displaced and infrastructure destroyed. More than 400,000 people have been killed, and more than 11 million have been displaced, either within the country or as refugees abroad. Well over half of Syria's population of nearly 23 million needs humanitarian assistance.
Military solution a 'fantasy'
Despite this dismal picture, the U.N. envoy acknowledged there were still people in Syria who believed in the possibility of a military solution to this crisis.
"That is fantasy," he declared. "Only a political solution — but a political solution that addresses the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people — can solve this crisis."
De Mistura said he was looking forward to the fifth round of intra-Syrian talks and thought that "we have prepared everyone to actually engage not only on methodology, but also on substance" regarding the four "baskets" of issues.
"The train is ready. It is in the station. It is warming up its engine," he said. "Everything is ready. It just needs an accelerator, and the accelerator is in the hands of those who were attending this round."