TSI live updates: Intra-Syrian Geneva Talks

This TSI blog post will follow the progress of the “Intra-Syrian Talks,” aka Geneva III. Check back frequently as this page will be updated periodically with new developments and statements from key players. (January 2016)

Update – Wednesday, 3 February 2016:    Over before they even begin ?  Geneva III talks put on hold . . .

Earlier today in Geneva, De Mistura met with the HNC representatives led by Riad Hijab. The delegation apparently reiterated its demands for implementation of humanitarian measures called for in UNSC Resolution 2254, including a cessation of the bombing of civilians. Far from decreasing attacks in a signal that it is ready for earnest negotiation, the regime has actually ramped-up a number of offensives with Russian air support in recent days. In some opposition held areas of Aleppo and Homs the ferocity of the bombings has been described as unprecedented. It also appears that pro-regime forces may be close to completely encircling opposition-held eastern Aleppo city, which would put hundreds of thousands more people under siege.

Several hours after meeting with the HNC, De Mistura announced that peace talks would be put in hold until February 25: “The UN cannot allow simple procedural matters to actually become more important than actually the results of humanitarian situation of the Syrian people who have been waiting for us to deliver this time, not a conference, but something concrete for them. I therefore, have taken this decision to bring a temporary pause, temporary pause, this is not end and it is not the failure of the talks” He appeared to lay some blame on “those who have been insisting that the talks should take place,” calling on the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) the UN Security Council meet in the interim to discuss the “pending and unresolved” issues inhibiting the start of negotiations.

The HNC delegation announced that it would depart from Geneva tomorrow and “not return until it sees progress on the ground.”

Bashar al-Jaafari, head of the regime’s delegation, pointed the finger at Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, claiming that the countries instructed the HNC to walk away.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement Wednesday evening indicating support for the position of the HNC. The statement condemned the continued Syrian assaults, supported by Russian airstrikes, and sieges of opposition held areas. It continued:  “We call upon the regime and its supporters to halt their bombardment of opposition-held areas, especially in Aleppo, and to lift their besiegement of civilians in accordance with UN Security Council Resolutions 2165, 2254 and 2258. It is past time for them to meet existing obligations and restore the international community’s confidence in their intentions of supporting a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis.”

Update – Tuesday, 2 February 2016: Criticism of Russia and Syria intensifies as Opposition threatens walkout

UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura met with the Syrian regime’s delegation today in Geneva. Bashar al-Jaafari, head of the Syrian regime’s negotiating delegation, told reporters in Geneva that they “came to Geneva without any preconditions, and it will not accept any preconditions from anyone,” a reference the HNC’s demands for the lifting of sieges and a halt to attacks on civilians prior to the start of negotiations. “The other party is dealing with this matter like amateurs and not professional politicians,” Jaafari went on to say. He noted that they were still in the preparatory stage in Geneva, and that everything, including humanitarian issues, would be tackled once negotiations began.

HNC talks to reporters outside, skipping a planned meeting with De Mistura on Tuesday

HNC talks to reporters outside, skipping a planned meeting with De Mistura on Tuesday

The opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC) released a statement from HNC member Fara Atassi regarding the serious escalation of attacks by Russia and the Syrian regime that have been reported in Homs and Aleppo governorates in the past week. “The regime’s and Russia’s actions gravely threaten the political process at this early stage,” the statement said. Members of the HNC reportedly cancelled a meeting with De Mistura planned for Tuesday afternoon, instead speaking to reporters outside of the UN headquarters in Geneva.

Some HNC members have said that the delegation would leave Geneva by the end of the week if humanitarian conditions were not met.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivered harsh criticism of the Syrian regime’s use of starvation as a tactic of war during a press conference on ISIS in Italy, calling the situation on the ground “unfathomable,” and stating that the anti-ISIS coalition has “a profound responsibility” to address “the absolutely stunning images and reality of life for real people on the ground in Syria.”

De Mistura also announced that he would be issuing invitations to Syrian women and civil society representative “to contribute to the United Nations-facilitated talks.” His office has established a new body called ‘Independent Women’s Advisory Board to the Office of the UN Special Envoy for Syria,’ to ensure that women are included in talks on Syria’s future. The initial Board will include 12 women, and there will be a regular system of rotations to bring additional voices into the process. A similar system of rotating consultations will be created for Syrian civil society organizations.

Update – Monday, 1 February 2016: De Mistura announces “official beginning” of Geneva talks

De Mistura speak to the press after meeting with HNC on Monday

De Mistura speak to the press after meeting with HNC on Monday

The Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC) and UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura spoke with the press following their first official meeting in Geneva. De Mistura told reporters: “as far as we are concerned, their [the HNC’s] arrival to the Palais des Nations and initiating the discussion with us, is the official beginning of the Geneva talks,” although the HNC continues to insist that it will not begin negotiations with the Syrian regime until humanitarian measures called for in UN Security Council Resolution 2254 are enforced. De Mistura said further, that: “we feel that they have a very strong point, because this is the voice of the Syrian people asking for that.”

A meeting between de Mistura and the regime delegation that was scheduled to take place Monday morning was ultimately pushed back until Tuesday morning, no specific reason was given for the delay. An additional meeting with the HNC is planned for Tuesday afternoon.

Update – Sunday, 31 January 2016:

UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, visited the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC) delegation at their hotel after they arrived in Geneva. A statement from de Mistura’s spokesperson said that the “short informal meeting was useful in addressing issues relating to the Intra-Syrian talks.” The Deputy UN Envoy for Syria reportedly held a meeting with the regime’s delegation, reportedly to discuss practical considerations for the talks. Both delegations are scheduled to meet with de Mistura on Monday.

The New York Times reported that the opposition negotiating team might attempt to have armed-opposition groups unilaterally lift the sieges of pro-government villages Fuaa and Kefraya in Idlib province as a goodwill gesture.

HNC Spokesman Salim Muslet holds a press conference after arriving in Geneva

HNC Spokesman Salim Muslet holds a press conference after arriving in Geneva

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry released a video statement regarding the talks, urging all parties to take advantage of this opportunity to end the war. In the statement, Secretary Kerry paid homage to the HNC’s demands for immediate humanitarian measures, stating that “There is also an urgent and compelling imperative required by international law and simple human decency that we take steps now to improve the situation on the ground for the Syrian people…” Secretary Kerry went on to specifically address the situation in besieged Madaya and the imperative under Resolution 2254 for all parties to cease bombings and other attacks against civilians immediately. Notable in this context is the blame that he assigned clearly at the Assad regime: “We must not forget what the Syrian people will always remember: Assad and his allies have, from the very beginning, been by far the primary source of killing, torture, and deprivation in this war; and the primary magnet drawing foreign fighters to Syria, giving cause to Daesh.”

In another sign that the HNC’s humanitarian demands may be met in order to salvage the Geneva talks, Russia’s official TASS News Agency reported that during a phone call between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Secretary Kerry, the two men “agreed that at the initial stage of the negotiations all sides must concentrate on settling humanitarian issues in the war-torn country, i.e. delivery of humanitarian supplies to besieged territories with disrupted supply lines – and only then get to political reforms and elections.” This represents a shift for Russia, which has previously resisted calls for preconditions of this sort.

Also on Sunday, two notable incidents occurred on the ground in Syria that were echoing in the halls of negotiating venues in Geneva. Both took place near Damascus. In the first incident, ISIS orchestrated a massive coordinated bombing attack against regime forces and affiliated militias near a Shia holy site known as the Sayyida Zeinab Shrine to the south of Damascus city. ISIS is not part of the negotiations and the attack was a reminder that threats from the terrorist group will not be diminished by any agreements reached in Geneva. The second incident occurred in the besieged community of Moadamiya to the southwest of Damascus city. During an intense regime bombardment with barrel bombs, approximately 97 people fell ill, showing signs of suffocation that raised the potential of another chlorine gas attack. This has not yet been confirmed, but if convincing evidence arises that the regime again used weaponized chlorine even as the international community scrambles to try and bring everyone to the table in Geneva it could have a serious impact on the start of negotiations.

Update, 30 January 2016:

The delegation of the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiating Committee (HNC) arrived in Geneva to speak with Special Envoy De Mistura. They released a statement from the HNC Coordinator Riad Hijab reiterating that they would not participate in negotiations with the regime while the violations of UNSC Resolution 2254 continue unabated. The statement stressed that their presence in Geneva was related to improving the humanitarian situation only and noted that the HNC has received written guarantees from a number of international actors that Resolution 2254 would be implemented. It also noted their intention to withdraw from Geneva if the UN cannot stop the humanitarian violations in Syria.

Update, 29 January 2016:

The “Intra-Syrian Talks” which began today in Geneva are quickly living up to low expectations.

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UN envoy Staffan de Mistura meets with  Syrian ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari and the rest of the regime’s delegation in Geneva (AFP: Fabrice Coffrini)

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HNC Statement, 29 JAN 2016

UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan De Mistura, kicked off the talks with a “preparatory meeting” with the Assad regime’s negotiating delegation, which arrived in Geneva Friday afternoon to participate in the UN-backed talks. Representatives of the opposition’s High Negotiating Committee (HNC), were not present in Geneva, having boycotted the beginning of the talks since their preconditions for humanitarian confidence-building measures on the ground have not been met. In particular, the HNC is demanding the implementation of paragraphs 12 and 13 of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015), which call for immediate humanitarian access to people in need, the release of arbitrary detainees, and an end to attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure.

At some point during the afternoon, the HNC apparently received sufficient assurances from De Mistura and friendly governments – particularly the U.S. – to warrant further discussion. In a statement posted online, the HNC said that it had decided to send a delegation to Geneva to talk with De. Mistura “a prelude” to negotiations in order to “test the seriousness of the other side,” but reiterated that it wanted humanitarian conditions to be met before it would enter into negotiations with the Assad regime’s delegation.

De Mistura alluded to progress being made behind the scenes, telling reporters that he had “good reasons to believe that they [the HNC] are actually considering this very seriously, and therefore to be in a position on, probably, Sunday, to actually start the discussion with them, in order to be able to proceed with the intra-Syrian talks.”

Meanwhile the Syrian Information Minister, Omran al-Zoubi, gave an interview on state TV in which he reiterated the regime’s position, supported by Russia, that there must be consensus on a list of designated terrorist organization in order to reach a political solution. This is a reference to a number of Syrian armed groups beyond ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra which are part of the HNC and considered legitimate actors by the U.S. and other supporters of the Syrian opposition.

During De Mistura’s press conference in the evening, he noted that the regime’s delegation had raised this issue of designating a terrorist list their preliminary meeting, but he reminded them that this issue should be discussed by the Security Council and was not one of the topics to be addressed during negotiations.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry released a brief, generic statement welcoming the HNC’s decision to travel to Geneva.

U.S. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham released their own statement expressing support for the HNC, “We understand that this difficult decision was made based on commitments from the U.S. government that a political transition will be discussed.” The Senators said that if the U.S. government does not uphold its commitment to push for a transition away from Assad in Syria, that “it would be understandable if the Syrian opposition chose not to participate further in these discussions.”

Update, 28 January 2016:

Less than 24 hours before the talks were scheduled to begin, the oppositions HNC announced that it would not attend the start of talks on 29 JAN, since it had not received a satisfactory response from the UN regarding its demands for the implementation humanitarian measures.

Khawla Mattar, spokeswoman for UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, indicated that the talks would begin as scheduled despite the opposition boycott. De Mistura would meet with the Syrian government delegation on Friday with hopes of meeting with other parties in the following days.

De Mistura also released a video message to Syrians about the planned peace talks, pleading for support: “We are going not to disappoint you,” he said.

Update, 26 January 2016:

The same day that UN Envoy De Mistura sent invitations to the Geneva talks, the opposition’s High Negotiating Committee (HNC) issued a statement requesting clarification on the role of individuals who were selected by Russia to attend as “advisors”, and calling on the UN to enforce humanitarian conditions of existing Security Council resolutions – including the release of political prisoners, the lifting of sieges, and a halt to attacks on civilians – as a precondition to beginning talks. The statement indicated that the HNC would wait for a response from UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon before deciding whether it would attend the Geneva talks.

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Background – The March to Geneva III

The result of a series of negotiations among world power in Vienna, the current UN-backed Syria peace talks  were first announced by a group of countries dubbed the “International Syria Support Group” (ISSG) in a 14 November 2015 statement. The ISSG initially set a target start date of 1 January 2016. Ironically, while the 14 November statement noted the ISSG’s commitment to “a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition,” there were no Syrian parties present in Vienna. The UN Security Council officially endorsed the ISSG’s plan for a new round of talks in Resolution 2254 (2015), which it adopted unanimously on 18 December 2015. A week later De Mistura announced 25 January 2016 as the new target date for the talks to begin in Geneva.

Since the announcement of this new initiative, key players – including the US, Russia, and UN Special Envoy De Mistura – have plowed forward with the planning of these talks despite an inability to agree on several fundamental points needed to bring all parties to the table. Notably, the US and Russia failed to agree on which groups should be invited to represent the Syria opposition. This dispute caused the start date of talks to be further delayed. On 26 January 2016 De Mistura issued invitations to an undisclosed list of invitees, and moved forward with the start of talks on 29 January 2016 despite a lack of consensus and of participants, since the opposition’s High Negotiating Committee decided not to send representatives in light of ongoing concerns with the process.

STRUCTURE & GOALS OF TALKS

Due to the ongoing distrust among potential participants, De Mistura announced that the talks would not be face-to-face but would instead be “proximity talks,” in which he shuttled back and forth between participants. They are intended to last for approximately six months, consisting of two-three weeks of negotiation followed by a pause for consultations.

The agenda will to cover four main areas:

  • A political process (including a discussion of elections and the drafting of a new constitution);
  • A ceasefire;
  • Nationwide humanitarian access, and;
  • The fight against terrorism.

The current “Intra-Syrian” talks are the first major internationally-mediated attempt to reconvene peace talks between warring parties in Syria since the Geneva II Conference ended in failure in February 2014.