The upcoming round of UN-mandated Syria talks, known as Geneva IV, will start in Switzerland this weekend. High hopes were originally pinned on this round of the Syrian peace process but that optimism has more or less vanished into thin air, thanks to colossal differences that have recently erupted between the three main stakeholders in the Syrian conflict; Turkey, Iran, and Russia. Tension between the big three torpedoed the Astana talks in Kazakhstan earlier this month and look set to bring down Geneva IV as well.
The current Geneva process, based on United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 – that sought a ceasefire and political settlement in Syria – was initiated in early 2016. Geneva IV calls for the creation of a “transitional period” for Syria that would lead to a power-sharing formula, followed by the drafting of a new constitution, and the conducting of parliamentary and presidential elections. The original Geneva talks were suspended last April, however, and have more recently been replaced with the Astana Process, a regional peace conference co-chaired by the Russians, Turks, and Iranians. Major players in the Syria conflict, like France, Great Britain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar—and the United States, were all left out of Astana. Launched in the Kazakh capital last January, it was supposed to breathe life into a nationwide ceasefire agreed to by the three big players during the final hours of 2016 and said nothing about the fate and future of the Syrian president.
The Astana Process, also based on UNSCR 2254, drew a clear line between the political opposition to the Syrian regime and the armed groups who have been fighting it since 2011. The Russians and Iranians were clearly more interested in cutting deals with these powerful groups, who are based inside Syria and command thousands of fighters across the terrain, than in doing business with civilians who live outside the country.
The Russians went a long way in courting armed groups like the Islamic Army, for example, which controls the strategic city of Douma in the Syrian countryside, seeing them as vital for any political or military breakthrough. Previously, Russian diplomats had crossed it off as a “terrorist organization” not much different from the Islamic State (ISIS) or Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria. Not only were the Russians offering de facto recognition to the thirteen armed groups assembled at Astana, but also, toying with the idea of giving them the right to co-administer towns and villages under their control, especially in the Syrian north.
The logic behind this approach, which didn’t sell well with Damascus and Tehran, was that the only way to work around militia rule is to bring the militias into government. By making them shoulder responsibility for state affairs, ranging from security issues to monthly salaries, the Russians hoped to bring their arms under control of the Russian Army and put their impressive following at the service of nation-building rather than war. This is what happened in Iraq when the Mehdi Army and SCIRI were brought into government ten years ago, and in Lebanon as well after the civil war ended, when all the militia leaders were pardoned and ushered into parliament. Veteran politicians in the Syrian opposition, who had been in the limelight for six years, were furious at being sidelined, fearing and that a unspoken decision had been taken in Moscow and Ankara, clearly at their expense, to transform them into ‘advisers’ to the political process, rather than actual negotiators.
The Russians have succeeded in driving a wedge between the political opposition and the armed groups. It was decided that only the militants would attend Astana II on 16 February while a joint delegation of 21 opposition figures will go to Geneva IV — ten of them being members of the armed opposition — but will only include those who had refused to attend Astana I and II.
To please the Russians, the Syrian opposition sacked the Geneva delegation’s previous chair, defected air force officer As’ad al-Zoubi, who was accused by the Kremlin of being “anti-Russian,” and replaced him with a 40-year old medical doctor from the southern city of Daraa named Nasr al-Hariri. An independent lawyer, Mohammad Sabra, was appointed “top negotiator” to replace Mohammad Alloush, a rebel leader who had co-chaired all previous rounds but had recently re-positioned himself fully with the Astana Process, rather than Geneva.
But differences remained very high —and serious — between the Turks and the Russians, despite ostensible agreement at Astana. President Vladimir Putin is seemingly unhappy with renewed discussion of a no-fly zone by his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan as it is one that exceeds what the two men had previously agreed upon in St Petersburg last August. When the Turkish Army rumbled across the Syrian border last summer, occupying the city of Jarablus, the Russians did nothing to prevent the operation, giving Erdogan the right to tailor-make an ideal border with Syria, one freed of Kurdish presence and cleansed of ISIS. Erdogan intended to clean out no less than 5,000 square kilometers of land, creating a no-fly zone to protect his country’s borders, and resettle 2.3 million Syrian refugees who have been living in Turkey since 2011. In addition to Jarablus, the Turkish project was supposed to include Azaz, 32-km northwest of Aleppo, Manbij, west of the Euphrates, and al-Bab, around 40-km northeast of Aleppo. Recently, however, Erdogan said that he wants it to include al-Raqqa as well, the de facto capital of ISIS, and this is another violation of what was agreed between him and Putin six months ago.
On 11 February, a spokesman for the Turkish Government said that the Turkish Army would halt its advances once reaching al-Bab (as agreed upon with Putin) and had no ambition in moving onto al-Raqqa. Immediately, Erdogan came out with a counter-statement saying: “There might be a miscommunication. There is no such thing as stopping when al-Bab is secured. After that, there is Manbij and al-Raqqa.” This statement was the beginning of the end of both Astana II and Geneva IV and the Russians responded by pushing their Syrian allies toward al-Bab from its southern countryside, taking up positions about 2 km from the city, also in violation of the Turkish-Russian agreement of August 2016. They seemed to be telling Erdogan: “If you advance on al-Raqqa without permission, the Syrian Army will advance on al-Bab. If you take al-Raqqa, we will take al-Bab.” If that happens, it would spell out the end of Erdogan’s safe-zone project. To make their point crystal clear, the Russians asked the Syrian Army to start an offensive on al-Raqqa as well, reminding Erdogan that the city was — or should be — off limits for Turkish ambitions.
Driving the message even further, Russian warplanes bombed a Turkish position in al-Bab on 9 February, killing four soldiers. The Turkish Army said it was an “accident” but the Russians did not apologise, blaming it instead on the Turkish, who they claimed had provided them with faulty coordinates of their positions in al-Bab. Last week, clashes erupted in the western and southern countryside of the war-torn city of Aleppo, which had been officially retaken by the Russians in December. The Turkish-backed rebels wanted the Russians to remember that given their proximity to Aleppo, and the amount of Turkish-backed rebels in the Aleppo countryside, a reversal could be quick and deadly for Russia’s prestige in the Syrian north. Mortars were fired on the city as well, killing two people after nearly two months of relative calm. Meanwhile, four Russian soldiers were killed at the T4 Airport of the ancient city of Palmyra, presumably at the hands of Turkish-backed militias.
All of this explains why Astana II was a flop and why Geneva IV will be too. The Turks downsized the weight of their delegation in Astana, while the Russians formally objected to the entire no-fly zone project. In Geneva today, the opposition will start the talks by demanding resignation of the Syrian President—a non-starter that will automatically be rejected by the Russians and the Iranians as well, who would prefer sending more messages to the Turks through the Syrian battlefield, than accommodating them—at least for now.