ISTANBUL – After weeks of political wrangling, peace talks between the Syrian government and groups opposed to Bashar al-Assad’s rule are due to go ahead in Geneva on Friday despite the absence of a key component of the Syrian opposition.
Syria’s largest opposition coalition said Thursday night it would not show up to talks unless aid is delivered to government-besieged communities across the country.
The High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the representative body of a broad coalition of political and armed opposition groups formed last month in Riyadh, has said no talks can be held until progress is made toward implementing goodwill humanitarian measures laid out by the UN Security Council in December.
“Tomorrow we won’t be in Geneva,” HNC chief Riad Hijab said Thursday evening. “We could go there, but we will not enter the negotiating room if our demands aren’t met.”
Hijab served as prime minister under Bashar al-Assad in the lead-up to the crisis and is the highest-level government defector.
In a video published on Thursday aimed at the Syrian people, UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura warned that the talks could be the last chance to find a peaceful end to nearly five years of war.
In the wake of several unsuccessful attempts at negotiations, de Mistura said the talks in Geneva “cannot fail.”
Since the crisis began in 2011, more than a quarter of a million people have been killed and millions have been forced to flee their homes.
After word got out that the HNC may refuse to attend Friday’s talks, the U.S. called on the group to rethink its decision.
“We believe it should seize this opportunity to test the regime’s willingness and intentions and expose before the entire world which parties are serious about a potential peaceful political transition in Syria and which are not,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.
“This is really an historic opportunity for [the committee] to go to Geneva to propose serious, practical ways to implement a ceasefire and other confidence-building measures,” Toner said, adding that while the HNC’s demands may be legitimate, they shouldn’t keep the talks from moving forward.
The negotiations, the first in two years, are aimed at bringing about a nationwide ceasefire and implementing an 18-month political transition leading to presidential elections.
They are initially set to begin in proximity, with de Mistura and his aids shuffling between delegations, relaying messages and offers. U.N. aids have warned that it may take six months to reach an agreement on how to implement a political transition.
And while recent debate has centered on which groups should represent the opposition at the table, the two sides are still at odds over the fate of Assad.
Arguments over the opposition’s representation, compounded by the HNC’s absence on Friday, has cast further uncertainty on talks that already had low expectations.
Turkey threatened to boycott the talks if the largest Kurdish party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), was invited – due to the PYD’s alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Ankara has compared the PYD and its militia, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), to “terrorist groups” like the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and the al-Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra Front.
Turkey, a major backer of the armed opposition in Syria, fears that further Kurdish victories in Syria will embolden its own Kurdish minority.
Over the last year, the YPG has proven to be the U.S.-led coalition’s strongest ground partner in the battle against the so-called Islamic State, and both the U.S. and Russia are keen on the Syrian Kurdish groups attending the talks in Geneva at some point.
But without representation of the HNC or the PYD-YPG at the table in Geneva, and steady government gains on the ground with the help of relentless Russian airstrikes and allied foreign militias, the prospects for success in Geneva are uncertain at best.
Aron Lund, Syria expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Syria Deeply that while there may be room for movement on key political issues like a partial ceasefire across the country, the talks in Geneva are still far too removed from the realities on the ground to achieve any immediate effect.
“Even if such things are signed in Geneva, they’re not going to be decided in Geneva,” Lund said. “It depends more on regional diplomacy and battlefield developments.”
De Mistura, however, is taking advantage of the major political disagreements over who should represent the opposition, using the uncertainty over the past two weeks to bring a broader selection of interests to the table.
“He’s inviting people outside the two core delegations … by enrolling ‘consultants’ and ‘advisers’ and civil society groups and so on,” Lund said.
“By having lots of people hanging around Geneva in a formal or informal capacity, inside or outside the conference venue,” he added, “[De Mistura] can proceed without exactly defining who is ‘opposition’ and what that means for their relationship to other actors.”
But while the U.N. struggles to get parties to agree on a guest list, the use of siege tactics on the ground is increasing, aid convoys are failing to reach blockaded and hard to reach communities, and it is average Syrians that are paying the price.
“Let me be clear: the continued suffering of the people in Syria cannot be blamed on humanitarian organizations and staff,” U.N. aid chief Stephen O’Brien said in an address to the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday.
“It is the failure of both the parties and the international community that have allowed this conflict to continue for far too long.”
Top image: U.N. special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura speaks during a news conference in Vienna on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015. (Associated Press)