The seventh round of UN-mandated Syrian “peace talks” in Geneva wrapped up at the weekend – with nothing to report. Thanks to endless bickering from both camps in the conflict since the process started in early 2016, not to mention American indifference, Geneva has produced nothing of significance. Having initially drawn significant interest from television networks around the world, most stations simply don’t cover the talks anymore. Worse, ordinary Syrians have stopped counting the rounds.
On one side of “Geneva VII,” we had the Riyadh-backed opposition still insisting on the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before any transitional period starts. Neither Damascus, Moscow or Tehran will countenance this idea. The opposition points to an agreement, reached way back in the summer of 2012, that called for the establishment of a Transitional Government Body (TGB) to assume power. As long as the president is removed, 50% of seats would – under the terms of the TGB – be taken by regime figures.
Russian diplomats claim this is now a figment of the past, overshadowed completely by battlefield developments since Moscow’s intervention started in September 2015. In December, they re-took the strategic city of Aleppo in the Syrian north. All other cities in Syria are presently held either by government troops or Islamic State (ISIS), with the sole exception of Idlib in northwestern Syria, which has been controlled by an assortment of Turkish-backed Islamic rebels since mid-2015.
Months ago, the Russians were willing to push for a broad cabinet of national unity in Damascus, where government posts are divided between regime figures and members of the Moscow-based Syrian Opposition. At one point they were also willing to discuss early presidential elections. Now, none of this is on the table.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has never been too fond of the Geneva process, seeing it as the brainchild of former US Secretary of State John Kerry. Earlier this year, they tried to bypass it by initiating the parallel “Astana process,” aimed at reaching localized ceasefires and de-conflict zones rather than jump-starting a political transition. They reasoned that neither Rex Tillerson nor Donald Trump were really interested in Syrian politics at a micro-level. From a Russian standpoint, only three things matter to the US in Syria: the eradication of ISIS, empowerment of the Kurds (who are seen as vital allies in the war on terror), and the expulsion of Hizbullah from the Syrian battlefield. During a spring meeting between Tillerson and Sergey Lavrov, the Russians suggested pushing Hizbullah away from the Syrian-Israeli borders but not out of Syria completely — something which the Americans apparently accepted, albeit only for now.
Geneva effectively morphed into a low-profile event aimed at discussing two things only: counter-terrorism and a new constitution
In fact, that is exactly what was agreed upon in Hamburg earlier this month, on the sidelines of the G20 Summit. Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin agreed to set up a “de-conflict zone” in southern Syria, one stretching from the border area to the countryside of Suwaida and encompassing the town of al-Quneitra on the Golan Heights. Syrian government troops would no longer be able to send tanks, soldiers or warplanes to this zone, which would be policed and manned by Russian military police on the ground, and by the Americans from the skies. This is what the Russians did in northern Syria last December, when they retook Aleppo from the armed opposition, deploying 600 military police to the area with no objections from the international community. At the fourth round of the Astana talks, held on 4-5 July, three other de-conflict zones were agreed upon by Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara – one east of Damascus, one north of Homs, and one in the city of Idlib in the Syrian northwest. Damascus will get to re-open schools and police stations in these districts, while raising its flag, but will have to agree to work with the armed opposition to combat ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.
For now, this seems satisfactory to the United States. At Geneva VII and all the other rounds preceding it since January, American diplomats showed up but put little effort into influencing the talks in favor of the Syrian Opposition. They acted more as observers than stakeholders, letting the Russians do all the bargaining and deal-making. Little surprise, then, that Moscow scrapped all issues that had previously been on the table, from a national unity cabinet to early parliamentary or presidential elections. Geneva effectively morphed into a low-profile event aimed at discussing two things only: counter-terrorism and a new constitution, which Russian lawmakers penned earlier this year.
Among other things, this constitution gives Syrian Kurds the right to use their language and allows Syrian territories (ie the four de-conflict zones) to elect their own governors and local parliaments, softly paving the way for a quasi-federal system. Damascus has rejected these proposals and so have its opponents, who complain that it would only reinforce the regime in Damascus. Still, the constitution remained the only serious topic at Geneva VII – and it’s one that will still be on the table at Geneva VIII in September. Anything else is simply no longer a priority for the various stakeholders in the Syria conflict — including, seemingly, the United States.