Lakhdar Brahimi, the veteran Algerian diplomat, apologized to the Syrian people on Saturday following the end of the latest round of the Geneva II peace talks. Considering the gap between the Syrian government and the opposition as to the narrative and purpose of the talks, nobody can say they are honestly surprised by this failure. The gap between the serenity and civility of the Swiss location and the glimpses of horror we see in snapshots of Homs, Yarmouk and Aleppo is a reminder of the scale of the challenge at hand. However, the talks are part of a process that should be seen as a marathon not a sprint, and there are already unforeseen consequences that could influence what happens next.
It is important to note that the talks have not been held against any sort of backdrop of nationwide truce or ceasefire. Indeed the violence has actually increased over the past three weeks with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimating that 3,400 people have been killed since the Geneva talks began. While Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mouallem delivered the regime’s position at the opening of the talks, the government’s military was delivering barrel bombs filled with explosives onto Aleppo, and soon after elements of the opposition were delivering Abdul Waheed Majid, a 41-year-old from Sussex, into the gates of Aleppo prison in a truck laden with explosives.
While acknowledging that diplomatic progress will be painfully slow as we approach the third anniversary of the conflict on March 15, the numbers simply don’t do justice to the situation in a country simultaneously enduring both a collapse and an exodus: More than 140,000 people are estimated to have been killed, some 500,000 wounded, over 2 million have fled the country, and 6.5 million are currently displaced within it—meaning that almost half of all Syrians have been forced from their homes. US officials have also warned that the conflict has set back the country’s development by thirty-five years. Absent from the talks was any sense of the urgency over the scale of this unravelling.
The talks have generally been a positive reputation-building experience for the opposition. Over a thousand accredited journalists attended the initial Geneva events and the managing of the message was a crucially important element in determining who was seen to own the overall failure. Supported by a phalanx of international public relations firms, the opposition was able to arrange a sense of control over both behind-the-scenes and public media briefings, with Louay Safi, spokesperson for the Syrian National Coalition, coming out of it particularly well. Meanwhile, the regime’s representatives, despite having bussed in a whole load of sympathetic Syrian media workers who regularly heckled Brahimi, repeatedly appeared overly defensive when pushed by journalists. Their delegation was also ambushed by Fatima Khan, the mother of Abbas Khan, a British doctor killed during the conflict. Her emotional confrontation with the regime negotiators made for some powerful viewing.
Despite the Syrian government simultaneously labelling the opposition’s representatives as “terrorists” and sitting down to talks with them, the opposition were able to put months of internal divisions and resignations behind them for the period of the talks. However, the news over the weekend that the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council had appointed Abdullah Bashir as head of the FSA was a reminder of the continued tensions at play. Also important for the opposition has been their success in pushing back against the rise of extremist-linked groups in their areas of control. Progress on the ground even allowed CNN to send in a team to report from areas where previously the Al-Qaeda-affiliated ISIS held sway.
The only tangible success from Geneva has been the easing of the siege on the old city of Homs. Although this was achieved largely through local negotiations rather than a top-down dictate, it showed that humanitarian progress can fill the vacuum left by political disagreement. What will be interesting to see is if the US and Russia, the original patrons of the Geneva II talks, can reach agreement on a resolution at the United Nations to allow unrestricted humanitarian aid to reach the whole country.
Announcing that although no date had been set for future talks, Brahimi urged all sides to “reflect” on what they wanted to achieve from any future negotiations. If the opposition can find that being in direct talks improves their strategic cohesiveness then that could open doors to more economic and military support—doors that have previously been closed. Meanwhile, the regime will be conscious that they lost the public narrative battle during the talks, which reflects badly not only on them but also on their Russian patrons, whose patience may not be infinite.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.