The latest round of Geneva talks are expected to bring concrete steps towards a political solution to the years-long conflict in Syria. However, internal disagreements within the alliances continue to threaten the process.
After more than six years of war in Syria, representatives of the different parties will gather in Switzerland for the eighth round of Geneva talks on Tuesday. The parties aim to develop a framework for a new government and constitution. The talks are the latest in a busy November, which saw several meetings including talks in Antalya, Sochi and Riyadh leading up to this latest Geneva conference.
The UN-backed Geneva talks originally started in 2012 during the early stages of the Syrian war and aimed to establish a transitional government. However, the first talks and the subsequent ones in 2014, 2016 and 2017 ended in a deadlock.
The shifting situation on the ground caused by transitioning alliances, the growth of the PYD/YPG in Syria’s north, and Russia’s bombardment support for the regime, meant that the players and their priorities were also changing.
The latest talks bring together the main parties of the conflict and their international backers, with the exception of the PYD/YPG, which controls much of northern Syria.
Although the participating parties have expressed commitment to transitioning from a military solution to a political one, some of the parties and their international backers have differing and competing interests and priorities on the ground.
A victory for the regime?
After nearly seven years of conflict, the Syrian regime was able to take over most opposition-held regions with the support of Russia's aerial bombardment and ground support from Iran. With Daesh virtually erased from the region, most of the Syrian lands are under regime control except for Idlib province and a few regions near Damascus and Syria’s southeastern border—which are in opposition hands—and the Euphrates Shield Region in northern Syria held by the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces. Large regions in the north, including the oil field region of Deir Ezzor, are under PYD/YPG control.
Regime allies Russia and Iran intervened in Syria with airstrikes, barrel bombs and siege techniques, and chemical weapons that targeted hundreds of thousands of civilians, including children, in addition to opposition forces. The aim was to keep leader Bashar al Assad in power. The UN has also identified systematic torture, forced disappearances and other forms of abuse committed by the regime. The UN General Assembly also passed draft resolutions on November 15 regarding human rights violations by the regime, including targeting civilians. However, the regime has consistently called all opposition groups terrorists.
With an end to the conflict in sight, the regime is entering the Geneva talks with the backing of Russia.
The future of Syrian leadership
Despite Assad’s claim to legitimacy, the Syrian opposition remains opposed to his leadership. On November 22, 140 members from different groups in the Syrian opposition gathered in Saudi Arabia in a bid to put forth a united front at the Geneva talks. They maintained that they would not accept Assad during an interim period, citing the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and their natural right to a sustainable political transition. The opposition also wants guarantees regarding trials for their members.
Assad’s backers also differ in their views regarding his claim to power. While Russia views Assad’s position in post-war Syria as negotiable, Assad remains a vital ally for Iran, which wants him to remain in power.
Both countries will be present at the Geneva talks.
As Russia provided aerial support, Iranian and Iran-backed militias, such as Hezbollah, have provided significant support on the ground across Syria. Iranian militias remain very influential in the country, a cause for concern for Russia.
“Assad called for us, and Assad will remain head of Syria as an elected leader,” said an Iranian official who spoke to TRT World on the condition of anonymity. “We will be in Syria as long as we are needed.”
“We will not pull out of those places where Assad and the Syrian people need us,” he continued.
Patron power games
Although Russia wants a political solution as soon as possible, due to the high cost of its involvement, it has been careful to prevent other powers, including the US and Iran from having far-reaching influence in the country. This has led to Moscow playing a delicate balancing game, forcing it to collaborate with many parties on opposing sides.
Russia has maintained its leading position in Syria, partly through the Astana talks, which have aimed to stop the fighting. Spearheaded by Russia, Iran and Turkey, the Astana talks proved to be the first successful effort at de-escalating the conflict in Syria, increasing Russia’s visibility and influence there.
Western parties now aim to have similar progress at the UN-backed Geneva talks, where they have more say. During the Astana talks, from which the US was excluded, Turkey consistently shared information with the US. In this regard, Turkey plays a critical role in Geneva because of its relations with Russia. Moscow continues to push for political solutions through its own channels, such as the planned Syrian National Dialogue Congress.
Despite these efforts, the Syrian opposition maintains that Geneva is the only legitimate channel for political transition negotiations.
Turkey also supports a UN-backed political solution to the conflict. It also says that fair, free and independent elections must be held under UN supervision.
Turkey also insists that all Syrian citizens—including those who were forced out of the country due to the conflict for fear of persecution—should be able to participate in any elections that are held.
All parties involved support the territorial integrity of Syria, but the US-backed PYD/YPG in northern Syria has carved out a space for itself, both geographically and diplomatically in the north of Syria, which poses problems for several of the parties involved, particularly Turkey.
The PYD problem
A notable absence in the Geneva talks is the US-backed PYD/YPG which currently controls large swaths of land in northern Syria. Their participation in the talks has been blocked by Turkey since the start of the negotiations because Turkey considers the YPG to be the Syrian branch of the PKK, a designated terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union and the United States.
US backing of the YPG militia in the fight against Daesh strained its relations with NATO ally Turkey, pushing Ankara to cooperate with Moscow instead. Although Russia does not provide arms and strategic support to the YPG like the US does, it provides the group with diplomatic and financial backing, a co-operation that Turkey has been eyeing with unease.
Russia’s acceptance of the PYD/YPG as a legitimate actor has elicited a harsh reaction from Turkey, which views the PYD/YPG presence near its border as a threat to its security and territorial integrity. Turkey met with Russia and Iran in Sochi to discuss various issues, including the status of the PYD/YPG, ahead of the Geneva talks.
Turkey rejects any possibility of PYD/YPG autonomy or legitimacy in northern Syria, and its foremost condition is the removal of the militia from Syria.
Moscow’s support of the militia is also being closely followed by Tehran, which says it is closely following Russia’s actions in Syria.
“Until now the PYD was not important for us,” the Iranian official said. “It was enough [for us] that Syria’s territorial integrity and stability was maintained, and that Western powers didn’t invade it.”
“Russia, [however] is trying to keep its bilateral relations [with Israel, the US, and the PYD] to continue its policies and maintain balance in the region. It is also aware that it can’t trust them [the US and Israel] so it is trying to keep a hold on the PYD, and it has the capability to direct it,” said the official.
“[W]e’re keeping our eye on them. If Russia does anything to violate the ongoing co-ordination, we are ready to act accordingly. We are watching the situation, keeping all possibilities in consideration.”