TSI live updates: Geneva III Intra-Syrian Talks Resume

This TSI blog post will follow the progress of the “Intra-Syrian Talks,” aka Geneva III, which resumed on March 14, 2016 after a false start in February. Check back frequently as this page will be updated periodically with new developments and statements from key players.

Note: Blog was updated each day of the talks. Scroll to the bottom for day one.

Thursday, 24 March 2016:

DAY NINE – The End of Round One

(Note: This update to the blog will cover just the events of Thursday. We will publish a final “wrap-up” summary of the first round of Geneva talks – what was accomplished, what wasn’t, and what it all means moving forward – in the next few days.)

Thursday was the final day of the first round of Geneva talks. It included a final meeting between UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura and the HNC, and a presentation by De Mistura of an “Essential Principles of a Political Solution in Syria” document that he produced, containing what he feels are the commonalities between the two sides.

De Mistura originally said that he would meet again with both the HNC and the government delegations before giving concluding statements, but Bashar al-Jaafari head of the government’s delegation, ended up leaving a day early, saying he was returning to Damascus for consultations on the document received from De Mistura on Wednesday.

De Mistura on the final day of the first round of Intra-Syrian Talks

De Mistura on the final day of the first round of Intra-Syrian Talks

The HNC delegation spoke at press conference after their De Mistura meeting, summing up their experience in Geneva in a statement that sounded much like a closing court argument. They made the case that over the past few weeks they demonstrated their credibility, seriousness, preparedness, and their effectiveness (note: that De Mistura essentially agree with this during his own statement to the press, going so far as to specifically recognize HNC delegation member Basma Kodmani for her professionalism and statesmanship during the press stakeouts), while the government had not. Among the HNC’s additional points:

  • They wanted to see more progress on the humanitarian issues, and “are astonished by the extent to which the world gets used to sieges. There is no talk of lifting sieges.”
  • They are encouraged by De Mistura’s efforts to make the detainees a priority.
  • With regards to the paper that De Mistura drafted and shared: “We think this paper is constructive and we have discussed it with a positive spirit.”
  • There have not yet been substantive talks on the issue of political transition and they hope they can begin in the next round.
  • The cessation of violence in Syria is holding to some extent, but there are increasing regime violations so its sustainability is under threat if no political progress is achieved.
  • They made reference to the attacks in Brussels and said that a stable Syria is at the heart of fighting terror.

De Mistura spoke at his final press conference, and presented publicly his document on points of commonality between the two sides for the first time. Some of the key points that he noted during his remarks:

  • He reiterated his hopes that the results of the meeting between John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov in Moscow will be helpful to the next phase.
  • In between the rounds in Geneva he hopes there will be other political and diplomatic discussions that support the process, including possible ISSG and Security Council meetings.
  • His office calculates that around 3,000 people who would have been killed are alive today due to the cessation of hostilities, which will hit the one-month mark on Sunday.
  • Humanitarian access to besieged areas has improved from its low point of “zero” last year.
  • He noted that during the first round of talks there were no breakdowns, no walkouts and no de-legitimization or personal de-legitimization.
  • The target date for start of next round is April 9 or 10th, possibly 11th if there are late arrivals. Note:

De Mistura stressed that he hopes that moving forward they can put principles aside so that the next round of talks can focus on the political process. Directly addressing the Syrian government’s unwillingness to move towards the substantive agenda, De Mistura said “the government delegation was extremely focused on the issue about principles in order to be able then to talk about everything else. And on the side of the opposition a very serious list of papers as well, but much deeper already on the political process. So the conclusion was we better take this issue about the principles… and put them quite aside. If we keep them there all the time, the next round of talks will not be about political transition or political process.” He concluded that as a result, he has decided to produce a paper himself, which contains twelve points of commonality between the two sides that he believes can be the basis for a common ground. De Mistura “invited each of the two negotiating parties to take away the paper to examine whether it accurately captures points of convergence if not consensus.”

This document, the “Essential Principles of a Political Solution in Syria,” can be read here in its entirety. Here is our brief summary of the twelve points:

  1. Sovereignty and territorial integrity. The restoration of Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
  2. Syrians will determine their own political, economic, and social future at the ballot box without foreign pressure or interference.
  3. Syria will be a democratic, non-sectarian state based on modern principles of the rule of law.
  4. Minorities will be respected and revenge acts will not be tolerated.
  5. Women will enjoy equal rights and be represented at the level of at least 30% in institutions and politics.
  6. Political transition in accordance with Resolution 2254 including mechanisms for new governance, constitution, and UN-supervised elections.
  7. Stability and calm during transitional period to allow for equal opportunity for citizen participation.
  8. Continuity and reform of state institutions and services. Protection mechanism for civilians and mechanism to fight corruption.
  9. Rejection of terrorism and opposition to terrorists identified by the UNSC.
  10. Rebuilding unified, national, professional army. Disarmament and integration of armed groups. No foreign fighters.
  11. Refugees and IDPs will be allowed to return home. Detainees released and the fate of those missing or disappeared will be determined.
  12. Reparations for rights and property lost during conflict. Lifting of economic sanctions.

Notably, this “Essential Principles” document is the first time since the start of the talks that De Mistura has definitively acknowledged that there are “two negotiating parties,” the government delegation and the HNC. He had previously avoided stating this outright, presumably to avoid angering Russia and the Syrian government which have both been pushing hard to have the four alternate opposition delegations that they helped cobble together be considered as equivalents of the HNC.

Vladimir Putin and John Kerry in Moscow

Vladimir Putin and John Kerry in Moscow

In other relevant news, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian leaders today in Moscow as planned. Both John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke to the press afterwards, each listing the points that they agreed on, with a few discrepancies between the two:

  • They will work to reinforce and enhance the effectiveness of the ceasefire, and to end the use of indiscriminate weapons. John Kerry also added that they would work to prevent parties from gaining new territory.
  • They will push for expand humanitarian access to besieged areas, and John Kerry also noted that they would work to prevent parties from interfering with deliveries.
  • They urged all parties to release prisoners and detainees immediately.
  • They will both work to create conditions for political progress, with John Kerry noting that they agreed on a target of August for establishing a political transition framework and draft constitution.
  • As a next step, they agreed to push the parties in talks to address the process for transitional governance, constitution, and elections under the terms of UNSC Resolution 2254 and 2012 Geneva Communiqué.
  • They both mentioned the fight against terrorism, but while Lavrov reiterated their “increasing coordination in our struggle with ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusrah, and other related extremist organizations,” Kerry stated it differently, saying that that they would work to resolve the conflict in Syria so that all could focus on defeating Daesh (ISIS).

Additionally, Lavrov urged the parties to sit at the negotiating table together and begin direct talks in Geneva, and that they should be between the government’s delegation and “all the range of opposition groups.” He said that the reason this hasn’t happened yet is because the opposition is putting forth preconditions on inclusiveness, particularly in excluding Kurds groups.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016:

DAY EIGHT – A Plethora of Platforms

Wednesday was jam-packed with meetings, as De Mistura met with both the government and HNC delegations, in addition to all of the alternative opposition groups. He also invited Ms. Federica Mogherini – the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission – to Geneva where she held meetings with both the government and HNC delegations. De Mistura said that he had invited her to attend as a representative of the EU, the ISSG, and the international community, so that she could help “send a strong message to those who are participating in these talks… take seriously these talks.”

During her joint press conference with De Mistura, Ms. Federica Mogherini described three key elements that she discussed with the parties:

  • First, consolidating and expanding the cessation of hostilities.
  • Second, consolidating and expanding humanitarian access to the areas that have not yet been reached.
  • And third, and most importantly, to enter into the political process, “without delays, without games, with the spirit of reaching a solution.”

De Mistura said that both the HNC and government delegations were focused on what had happened the previous day in their meetings with him, and the government delegation was particularly focused on terrorism. De Mistura reiterated that while terrorism was a focus, in order to address it: “you have to find a political solution in Syria. So, it all goes back to those who have been complaining about terrorism, saying: what about all of you helping us to solve politically the crisis in Syria?” He thanked Ms. Mogherini for helping him try to bring the focus back to “the mother of all issues,” political transition.

During De Mistura’s meeting with the government delegation he presented them with a paper, which al-Jaafari said they would study in Damascus during the recess and respond to during the next round of talks. The HNC did not speak publicly about their Wednesday meeting with De Mistura.

All four of the alternative opposition delegations spoke to the press, following what was for most of them their second meeting with De Mistura in Geneva (for the Internal Damascus delegation or “Hmeimim group,” it was the first).

A brief overview of their statements:

Moscow-Astana Platform

Randa Kassis speaks on behalf of the Moscow-Astana Platform

Randa Kassis speaks on behalf of the Moscow-Astana Platform

Paris-based dissident Randa Kassis spoke on behalf of the pro-Russian Moscow and Astana Platforms. She described them as a “secular democratic delegation from Syria,” said they cannot except further delays to Geneva based on format, and demanded that the Geneva agenda be implemented in all aspects. She also noted:

  • Their terms of reference as the basis for negotiations are the Vienna Communiqué, and UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015).
  • Direct talks between the parties will assist in finding a solution.
  • The parliamentary elections that the government wants to hold on April 1 should not delay the talks, they are basically government elections and they are not realistic.
  • On the issue of who represents the opposition: Ms. Kassis said that the “UN should fulfill its role and not submit to the whims or pressures of any powers,” and the broadest spectrum of opposition must be involved. We know that powers “want to go back to Geneva II where there was only one opposition delegation” she said. She went on to say that Resolution 2254 specifically mentioned the Moscow and Cairo groups as well as the Riyadh group (the HNC) and others. Analyst note: Her claims on this point are not entirely true. Resolution 2254 did not mention any of these groups, it noted that there were meetings in Moscow, Cairo, and Riyadh, specifically and separately calling out the Riyadh meeting for its “usefulness.”
Jihad Makdissi speaks on behalf of the Cairo Platform

Jihad Makdissi speaks on behalf of the Cairo Platform

Cairo Platform

Jihad Makdissi, the former Foreign Ministry Spokesman who defected in late 2012, spoke on behalf of the Cairo Platform. He said that during their meeting they submitted two documents to De Mistura: a political road map, and a summary of basic principles from the road map.

  • Their position on the Assad government: there is no place for the present political system in Syria.
  • They want to unify visions of the opposition groups to lead to a political transition, and believe that all who are negotiating in earnest will feel the same.

Internal Damascus Platform (Hmeimim group)

Last, and in this case also least, Dr. Elian Musad, head of the Internal Damascus Platform (Hmeimim group), spoke to a notably depleted room. His conference started on an awkward note when the man introducing him referred to his delegation as the “Internal Damascus Platform,” and he immediately turned to correct him to include the word “Opposition” in the title. During his group’s meeting they submitted several papers to De Mistura that covered a way to exit the conflict, and plans for a secular/democratic constitution. He then went on to describe positions that very closely mirror those of the Syrian government (for a comparison see this February AFP interview with Bashar al-Assad himself), which he described as “realist.”

  • Dr. Elian Musad speaks on behalf of the Internal Damascus Platform (aka the Hmeimim Group)

    Dr. Elian Musad speaks on behalf of the Internal Damascus Platform (aka the Hmeimim Group)

    The April 13 parliamentary elections that the Syrian government has requested to postpone the second round of Geneva talks for are not a problem.

  • His group has fully adopted the Vienna Communiqué, “it has become our political platform.” And they want a democratic secular state with decentralized administrative powers while center retains sovereignty.
  • Transitional governance would lead to deadlock since the current authorities will not agree to it. Instead, they call for a “participatory national unity government,” that would lead to reforms including a new constitution, new laws on press, elections, decentralization and freedom of association.
  • The Internal Damascus Platform is the only peaceful opposition and they should be the only ones seated at the table to negotiate with the government delegation. Other opposition groups are “renting their voices” to foreign powers and have a specific geopolitical agenda.
  • They want change of current authority but only through the ballot box.
  • President Assad is popular and must be allowed to participate as a candidate in future elections. Removing him and the army would lead to the end of Syria. “His popularity as I said, and his rights as any other citizen of the country allow him to do so, anything else other then that will only mean a continuation of war and a continuation of violence.”
  • When asked if he would vote for Assad in elections he essentially said yes, noting that he would vote for the head of the armed forces (the President, Assad) because the country is dealing with terrorism and the army is the symbol of unity and sovereignty: “it is the army that is the guardian of the constitution.

Analyst note: The focus on elections here can be misleading. Elections in Syria bear little resemblance to elections in Western democracies. They have traditionally been rubberstamp single-candidate referendums for the ruling Assad regime in which Assad (and his father before him) receive close to 100% of the vote. In 2014 Syria held its first multi-candidate election, but it was a farcical event that lacked international oversight and was rife with manipulation: threats and intimidation, rampant voter disenfranchisement, ballot stuffing, and numerous other types of fraud were reported (See “The Grim Spectacle of Syrian Faux-lections” for more). The two challengers approved by the state to run against Assad were MPs from within the current government. Holding elections continue to be a central policy point of the Assad government because it believes that it will be able to control the outcome of an election even with foreign observers present. Unless the international community is able to completely dismantle the government’s feared security apparatuses beforehand, this is quite likely a correct assumption on Assad’s part.

Jan Egeland – head of an NGO called the Norwegian Refugee Council who is serving as a Special Advisor to De Mistura and leading the charge to coordinate efforts of the ISSG’s Humanitarian Task Force – spoke about the slow but continuing efforts to reach besieged and hard-to-reach communities. Of note is the fact that they have still not received even verbal permission from the Syrian government to access two critically besieged areas: Douma and Daraya. Also troubling is the fact that most medical supplies continue to be removed from convoys that are approved, and the government is cracking down on several besieged areas not on the official UN list, such as Al-Houleh and al-Waer in Homs province.

Several of the people who met with De Mistura throughout the day said he intended to issue a paper on a common vision on Thursday, the final day of the first round of the Geneva talks.

Meanwhile John Kerry arrived in Moscow, where he plans to meet with Russian FM Lavrov and President Putin on Thursday, just as the first round of talks in Geneva are coming to a close. A Senior State Dept. Official said that he would try to make progress with the Russians on Syria’s political transition, and noted that the U.S. has not had very detailed conversations on this topic before: “The question is whether we can get down to brass tacks with the Russians on how you go from here to there in terms of transitioning the government. “

Tuesday, 22 March 2016:

DAY SEVEN – The HNC and the Women’s Advisory Board

Asad al-Zoubi, Head of the HNC team, addresses the press in Geneva

Asad al-Zoubi, Head of the HNC team, addresses the press in Geneva

De Mistura’s main meeting on Tuesday was with the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC). They presented De Mistura with additional documents, which they say covered procedural matters, the release of detainees – especially women and children – and fundamental principles for political transition. During the meeting De Mistura also gave the opposition delegation the “basic principles” document submitted previously by the Syrian government. Asad al-Zoubi, head of the HNC delegation, said that the first item at the top of all of the government’s papers was counterterrorism, and that they also raised irrelevant issues such as liberating Palestine and the Golan.

During the post-meeting press conference, Al-Zoubi also raised several complaints and areas of concern for the HNC. He said that the government has so far refused to engage in political transition discussions and that the “people of Syria insist on a transitional governing body that has no place for Bashar al-Assad or any of the key figures of the regime.” He also said that the government is involved in creating new sieges and strengthening others, and has started using barrel bombs again.

De Mistura also met with the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board. Four of the women from the group gave their first press conference to the press corps gathered in Geneva for the talks. De Mistura personally introduced them, telling reporters that he was proud of the group – an initiative of his office – and stating that “we need to empower the women of Syria, they have a lot to tell us.”

The women spoke of raising the level of participation of women in the political negotiations process to no less than 30% and said that they were presenting papers and opinions on the substantive issues of the talks. In particular they called for two specific initial steps: 1) For all parties to release detainees (starting with peaceful activists), kidnapped hostages, and to disclose fate of missing, and 2) They urged the immediate lifting of economic sanctions on Syria that hinder provision of food, medicine, and supplies. The first item, the release of detainees on both sides – is a key issue of current concern and is directed at the government as well as the opposition. Interestingly, the second item they mentioned – the lifting of sanctions against Syria – is not on the agenda at Geneva nor is it addressed in any of the international agreements or UNSC Resolutions leading up to the talks. It is actually a talking point of the Syrian government, and according to Bashar al-Assad, the economic embargo imposed on Syria for the past five years is one of the three fundamental causes of the conflict (the other two are terrorism and Western policies).

During the Women’s Advisory Board’s Q&A session with the press, a reporter from the pro-opposition SMART News Network took an aggressive stance, saying that the speakers didn’t look like Syrian women because none of them wore head scarves, and he accused them of representing the regime more than any other party, sarcastically asking: “will there be a day when we see that Asma al-Assad will also be amongst you?”

Members of the Syrian Women's Advisory Board maintain composure while listening to an insulting question from a reporter

Members of the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board maintain composure while listening to an insulting question from a reporter

Although it seems clear that De Mistura is still searching for the overlap, the common ground between the two sides’ positions to build on, he tried to highlight silver linings, telling reporters that he felt “the atmosphere has changed… We have not had a walk out, or slamming the doors. We have not had the refusal of acknowledging the existence of others as interlocutors.” When asked about his progress in getting the sides to discuss the idea of a political transition, De Mistura said he placed “great interest, expectation, hope and strong expectation that the talks that will take place in Moscow will be productive… in the right direction in order to help us to resume the talks with much more in-depth address on the issue of political transition.” Indicating that he needs the U.S. and Russia to get the parties to discuss the critical issue of political transition – or more specifically that he needs Russia to pressure the Syrian government to discuss this issue. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to meet with Russian leaders including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on March 23-24. Syria is expected to feature heavily in the discussion.

De Mistura declined to respond to a question about reports that the Syrian government delegation wants to delay the next round of talks on account of their overlap with a parliamentary election on April 13. Instead he said that they were still discussing the dates and he would have a firm answer on Thursday when the first round is set to end. The HNC has already rejected any delay for “illegitimate elections.” A post on their Twitter account reads: “If the regime feels they’re tired, they can send someone else. We can’t afford delay because of all the innocent lives being killed.”

De Mistura plans to speed up the pace of talks for the remainder of the first round. He will meet with both the HNC and the government delegation on Wednesday and Thursday, before all parties recess and prepare for round two.

Monday, 21 March 2016:

DAY SIX – The mother of all issues

Today Staffan de Mistura met with the Syrian government delegation, and with members of civil society.

The head of the government’s delegation Bashar al-Jaafari told reporters that their meeting with De Mistura focused on issues that are a priority for Syria, namely: terrorism, and the problems of UN member states supporting terrorists in Syria. This confirms concerns that the Syrian government delegation is not yet ready to discuss the agenda for the Geneva talks, which De Mistura has stated is already set and covers: “a new inclusive governance, a new constitution, new presidential and parliamentary elections within 18 months.” Though the details of the “fundamental principles” document submitted to De Mistura by the government delegation on Friday has not been shared publicly, it is probably a safe bet to say that it addressed primarily government priorities that not on this agenda.

De Mistura told reporters that during his meeting with the government delegation they discussed the papers presented by the delegation in depth. He said they also talked about the issue of terrorism and disagreed on the definition. While the government “has its own very elaborated analysis of its own concept of terrorism,” the UN only recognizes those groups officially designated as terrorists by the UN Security Council. In this case that means ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. ”the rest is a personal opinion, or a government opinion, but not the UN opinion,” he said.

De Mistura briefs reporters in Geneva on Monday

De Mistura briefs reporters in Geneva on Monday

The government’s reluctance to address the substantive agenda of the talks is not wholly unexpected, but it does present a serious roadblock and could ultimately derail the talks. De Mistura told reporters that Jaafari told him that it was “premature” to talk about political transition; he responded to Jaafari that they were “imminent.” How he intends to get the government side to address political transition, which he continues to refers to as the “mother of all issues,” remains unclear.

De Mistura told reporters that on Tuesday, he will meet with the HNC and others, likely referring to the alternative opposition groups fielded by Russian and the Syrian government. He awkwardly danced around the issue of the HNC as the official opposition negotiating delegation: “Tomorrow will be the HNC in particular, and others. But in particular the HNC.” He has further plans to meet with both the HNC and the Syrian government delegation on Wednesday and Thursday mornings as this first two-week phase of the Intra-Syrian talks wraps up.

In a worrying sign, Russia issued a statement indicating that if the U.S. did not take immediate action to agree with them on a method of dealing with ceasefire violations, Russia will begin take unilateral action against opposition groups that it feels have committed violations starting on Tuesday. The return to Russian widespread bombing of non-ISIS and non-Jabhat al-Nusra Syrian opposition groups may lead the country’s fragile temporary ceasefire to completely unravel. It would also place the U.S. in an uncomfortable position as the co-chair of the ISSG’s Ceasefire Taskforce, since the majority of ceasefire violations thus far have been committed by the Syrian government and its allies but there are no signs that the U.S. would be willing to take enforcement actions against them.

The U.S. responded to Russia’s announcement that it may begin to punish ceasefire violators unilaterally. U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the statement “runs counter itself to the spirit of the cessation of hostilities agreement,” and said that “Our expectation is that Russia will refrain from unilateral actions and respond to our counterproposal on the modalities for implementing the cessation of hostilities agreement.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is supposed to visit Moscow on March 23-24 and Syria is expected to feature heavily in his talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Friday, 18 March 2016:

DAY FIVE – Week one wrap-up

Friday: On Friday, De Mistura held wrap up meetings with a number of groups. He met with the HNC and the government delegation (still separately), as well as the women’s advisory board and the newest Russian-fielded opposition delegation: the “Hmeimim Group.”

Bashar al-Jaafari told reporters that they presented a document, “Fundamental principles for a political solution to the crisis in Syria,” to De Mistura during their meeting on Friday. But, during his subsequent press conference right after Jaafari, De Mistura suggested to the press corps that he did not get what he was hoping for from the government delegation in terms of substance, indicating that the document presented was still focus on procedural or foundational issues. By contrast, De Mistura once again praised the HNC for their progress into substance, saying: “I am quite impressed by the level of depth in which they have been ready and ready, to engage the facilitator, the mediator, my team with substantial points regarding already their own vision of governance, hence political transition.”

Weekly wrap-up: Friday marked the end of the first week of Geneva III “Intra-Syrian” proximity talks between the Syrian opposition, represented by the HNC, and the Syrian government delegation. The meetings between UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura and the two sides sides were held on alternating days. During the week he also met with a number of additional Syrian groups such as a women’s advisory board, and several alternative regime-tolerated and pro-Russian opposition groups, in order to get input from a wide range of actors. Also during the week, the two ISSG Taskforces – co-chaired by Russia and the U.S. – met to try to maintain humanitarian and military conditions on the ground that are conducive to continued talks.

While it is still too early to say definitively how both sides will behave moving forward, patterns are beginning to emerge. While the level of harmful rhetoric is far lower than in the failed 2014 Geneva II talks, the Syrian government delegation may again be taking the “stall” approach, in which it refuses to discuss the agreed-upon agenda while continuing to make gains on the ground. The upcoming week – March 21-25 – will be very telling in this regard. While Russia put the Syrian government in a stronger negotiating position by helping the pro-government forces make major gains on the ground prior to the restart of talks, Russia’s “mission accomplished” announcement that they would be withdrawing their forces as the talks started on March 14th had many observers speculating that this time they would force the Syrian government to get serious by removing their safety net. This speculation has been tempered somewhat by Russia’s declaration that it could ramp up to full power in Syria within hours if need be, and that it was committed to maintaining the balance of power.

The Syrian opposition delegation, the HNC, came prepared to play ball whether the government is or not. So far they have coupled earnest engagement on the key substance of the talks with a focus on humanitarian and human rights issues, making them appear to be serious and legitimate negotiators. This approach has helped them in terms of media “optics,” but has also forced De Mistura to take their humanitarian asks seriously. Some small progress has already been made on the humanitarian access issues, and the newer focus is on getting progress on the release of detainees.

The week also marked the five-year anniversary of the start of violence in Syria, and saw Kurdish groups, excluded from the Geneva talks, state their intention to create a federal zone in Kurdish-controlled cantons in northern Syria.

Thursday, 17 March 2016:

DAY FOUR – Muddying the Waters

On Thursday, Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura again met with the opposition’s delegation. He described the meeting as intense, very productive, and substantive. During the meeting the HNC distributed a written proposal on their ideas for a political transition. “We were impressed by the depth of preparation they had,” De Mistura told reporters. During the HNC’s post-meeting press conference they said that they hoped De Mistura would be able to get the Syrian government delegation to present their positions in writing as well. De Mistura mirrored this sentiment in his own remarks, indicating that he had gained a level of clarity of the HNC’s positions and hoped tomorrow to gain similar clarity from the government.

On Friday De Mistura has meetings scheduled with both the government’s delegation and the HNC.

Also on Thursday, there were meetings of both the Humanitarian and Ceasefire Taskforces of the ISSG. De Mistura acknowledged that progress had been slow on humanitarian access issues, although as he spoke convoys additional were reportedly reaching the four towns that have been leveraged against each other in negotiations: Madaya, Zabadani, Fuaa, and Kefraya. He also said that stressed that he had raised the issue of detainees with the Taskforce and its co-chairs Russia and the U.S., and would continue to do so until progress was made. During their meeting with De Mistura, the HNC stressed the need to work towards the release of tens of thousands of political detainees. Hammering home this point, an exhibition of some of the “Caesar photos” was held on the sidelines of the talks. The 50,000+ “Caesar photos,” smuggled out of Syria in 2013 by a defected military photographer, contain graphic images of torture victims who were systematically killed in Assad’s prisons. De Mistura also noted that this same continuing pressure would be applied to the ISSG Humanitarian Taskforce to gain access to besieged areas that the government had still not granted access to, notably Daraya and Douma. Things appeared a bit rosier for the Ceasefire taskforce. De Mistura appeared almost uncertain of how to describe the situation when he told reporters that the last three days had been surprisingly calm.

The next taskforce meetings are scheduled for Wednesday, March 23, prior to the closing day of this first round of talks on Thursday, March 24.

De Mistura deflected questions from reporters about his meetings on Wednesday with the “Moscow-Cairo Group” of pro-Russian and regime-tolerated opposition members, and also about a meeting planned on Friday with a new “opposition” delegation that just arrived in Genev, termed the “Hmeimim Group,” after Russia’s new Syria airbase. The leader of the “Hmeimim Group” has stated that Bashar al-Assad has significant support across the country and that the HNC’s calls for his resignation are “destroying Syria.” Their sudden appearance and the demands of the Moscow-Cairo groups to be considered a full negotiating party, seem designed to discredit the HNC and draw into question its legitimacy as the primary opposition negotiating body.

Sidenote: the HNC and its growing crowd of rivals

The HNC formed late last year in Riyadh in an effort, spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, to unify the Syrian political and military opposition ahead of potential peace talks in Geneva. Despite the current attempts by the Syrian and Russian governments to reframe the HNC as the “Riyadh Group,” on par with the “Moscow Group,” the “Cairo Group,” the “Istana Group,” and now the “Hmeimim Group,” there are important differences between them. The meeting in Riyadh that birthed the HNC brought together an unprecedented array of representatives from both the armed and political opposition groups, and the fact that they were able to agree on a negotiating committee and unify their demands for Geneva was a major breakthrough for a spectrum of groups that has struggled with division throughout the conflict. The inclusion of armed opposition factions in the HNC and the Geneva talks is critical, as their buy-in will be needed to implement any agreement on the ground.

By contrast, the individuals in the other delegations represent relatively marginal factions that for a variety of reasons have failed to unify with the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (Syrian Coalition) – the main political opposition group and a cornerstone of the HNC – and spiraled off in their own series of fractious splits and reconciliations. While there are important differences between and among the members of these groups, they all have one important thing in common: they do not call for Assad’s removal as a part of political path forward for Syria. It is for this reason that Assad’s friends, primarily Russia, have courted these groups in hopes of creating an alternative opposition that can supplant, or at least weaken, the HNC.

While there has been no immediate fallout from this proliferation of regime-tolerated opposition groups demanding a seat at the table, De Mistura is now tiptoeing through a political minefield. These groups complicate an already complicated endeavor, and have the potential to derail the talks entirely. If the HNC were to walk away, it is hard to imagine the talks continuing with any sort of legitimacy, as they are the only negotiating delegation that can reasonably claim to any of the armed opposition groups whose buy-in will be needed to implement any agreements on the ground.

In relevant news, the Kurds announced their intention to set up a federal system in the three cantons they control in northern Syria. Although they insist the move is not a step towards establishing an independent state, it drew expected condemnation from both sides in Geneva. HNC negotiator George Sabra is quoted as calling the move “illegitimate and unacceptable.” The Syrian government warned against the move, stating: “Any declaration to that effect would be without any legal value and void of any legal, political, social or economic effect.” It seems this move towards federalism was accelerated as a result the Kurdish PYD party’s exclusion from the Geneva talks.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016:

DAY THREE – Arrival of the “Moscow-Cairo Group”

On the third day of talks, De Mistura met with the Syrian government’s delegation for the second time. Bashar al-Jaafari said that the meeting again focused on “the form of the dialogue before moving to the substance,” but according to De Mistura’s Deputy, Ramzy Ezzeddine Ramzy, the substantive discussion had already begun.

Al-Jaafari also said that no single party could claim to represent the opposition and that they were still awaiting the arrival of some groups. This was a reference to the so-called “Moscow-Cairo Group,” an umbrella term for a group of internal opposition members who are pro-Russian and are tolerated by the Syrian government, in large part because they have not been calling for Assad’s removal. One thing that members of this group all have in common is that they have little apparent influence with the rest of the opposition and no connection to armed factions on the ground.

Russia has pushed hard for their inclusion, and their invitations were issued by De Mistura’s office under a “big tent” approach to the talks. During a press conference, Ramzy Ezzeddine Ramzy noted that De Mistura was meeting with the ”Moscow-Cairo Group” in the afternoon, saying “We are very keen on listening to the broadest spectrum of Syrians, whether inside or outside Syria, and our meeting with them today comes within this framework.”

During the first attempt at the Geneva III talks, which were quickly aborted almost before they began in February, De Mistura’s office more clearly stated that these other internal opposition members were invited in an advisory capacity and that the HNC was the only recognized negotiating delegation. Although the meeting schedule of alternating days between the regime’s delegation and the HNC gives the appearance that this is still the case, this time around De Mistura’s team has not been very direct in describing the role of these other opposition groups. New reports suggest that during the afternoon meeting between De Mistura and the Moscow-Cairo umbrella group, they demanded an equal seat at the negotiating table. If this is true, it will undoubtedly lead to controversy, as the main opposition group – the HNC – views many of the members of these other groups as aligned with Moscow and the Assad regime. Members of the Moscow Group also reportedly submitted a document to De Mistura laying out seven principles for political transition in Syria. Earlier in the day on Wednesday it had been announced that De Mistura would hold an evening press conference after his meeting with the Moscow-Cairo group, but this conference never materialized so many details remain unclear.

On Tuesday, HNC spokesman Salem al-Meslet had told reporters that the HNC was prepared during the next round of negotiations, “to go in direct negotiations with the regime,” as opposed to the proximity talks in which the parties were not in the same room. But on Wednesday, Bashar al-Jaafari ruled out direct talks, calling the HNC’s lead negotiator, Mohammed Alloush “nothing but a terrorist,” due to his affiliation with the Syrian opposition group Jaysh al-Islam. He demanded an apology for a statement by Alloush that Bashar al-Assad “must be put on trial and executed for his crimes against the Syrian people.”

Meanwhile, Kurdish groups in northern Syria – who were not invited to participate in the Geneva talks – may soon declare a new federal system in territories they control. The news started to circulate as they began a convention in Rmeilan, Hasakah, to discuss the topic. This move towards greater autonomy for Kurdish regions drew criticism from both sides in the negotiations in Geneva. The Kurds are expected to reconvene and make a final announcement on Thursday.

Kurdish and other groups gather to discuss creating a federal system in northern Syria

Tuesday, 15 March 2016:

DAY TWO – First HNC Meeting

On Tuesday, the 5th anniversary of the start of the Syrian revolution, De Mistura met with the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) delegation, which represents the main opposition factions at Geneva. The meeting began with a moment of silence for the victims of the war in Syria.

Moment of Silence

Staffan de Mistura and the HNC begin their meeting with a moment of silence

De Mistura noted that the delegation raised several issues that he would be brought to the attention of the task forces, notably the issue of detainees, which has seen little if any progress so far. They also discussed principles that should guide the transitional political process, and the HNC also reportedly shared with him a document outlining their ideas.

De Mistura also commented on the Russian decision to draw down some of its forces in Syria, calling it a significant development, which he hoped would have “some positive influence on the actual progress of the talks.”

During a press conference, De Mistura described three key differences between this round of talks and previous attempts, which he believes have created a new sense of urgency and momentum: the European refugee crisis, the Russian military intervention, and the advance of ISIS. The resulting engagement from countries like the U.S. and Russia led to the creation of the two ISSG taskforces bringing together 18 nations, and a more unified Security Council.

On Wednesday, De Mistura is scheduled to meet with the government delegation once again. On Thursday, meetings of both of the two ISSG taskforces are planned.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon released a statement to commemorate the anniversary of the Syrian revolution and the restart of the Geneva Talks, urging all parties to seize the diplomatic momentum. “If we miss this opportunity,” he wrote, “the consequences for the Syrian people and the world are too frightening to contemplate.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry also announced that he would travel next week to Moscow to meet with Russian leaders and discuss the progress on Syria’s political negotiations.

In other relevant news, the UN General Assembly’s Human Rights Council held an “interactive dialogue” in Geneva with the “Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria” (COISyria). During the dialogue, the COISyria presented findings from their most recent report: A/HRC/31/68. Syria spoke at the dialogue, calling the COISyria’s report biased and secretive and alleging that the “manoeuvring and the reports of the Commission gave political cover to terrorism.”

Monday, 14 March 2016:

DAY ONE – “Substantive” talks begin in Geneva

UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura gave a press briefing before the talks began in which he acknowledged that “there is much distance between the sides,” and reconfirmed that the format would again be proximity talks in which the parties are not in the same room. He also noted that the agenda for the talks has been set and was based on the guidance of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015), which focuses on the establishment of “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance,” drafting a new constitution, and free and fair elections. This first round of talks is expected to last for ten days, with a target recess date of March 24. After that they expect to have two more similar rounds of talks, after which time they hope to have established “a clear road map.”

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De Mistura holds a press conference before meeting with the Syrian government delegation in Geneva

The ISSG’s two taskforces: one on the ceasefire and one of humanitarian access, play a critical role in this process by ensuring that the conditions on the ground are conducive to the continuance of negotiations, and they will continue to meet throughout the coming weeks to focus on the situation on the ground so that the parties can focus on political talks in Geneva.

UN Special Envoy met later that day with the Syrian government delegation led by Ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari. During the meeting they reviewed and clarified procedural issues and discussed the format of the dialogue. The delegation presented de Mistura with a document named “Basic Elements for a Political Solution,” containing their ideas and priorities for the talks. The government delegation’s next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, when de Mistura expects them to start on the more substantive agenda. Al-Jaafari described the meeting as “positive and constructive.”

In relevant news, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the start of the withdrawal of “the main part of our military group” from Syria, stating that he considered “the objectives that have been set for the Defence Ministry and for Russia’s Armed Forces in the Syrian Arab Republic to be generally accomplished.”

Putin stated that Russia would retain their existing maritime base in Tartous, as well as the new Hmeimeem airbase, which they built out late last year to support their air campaign in Syria. The airbase is located in Latakia, and is co-located with the Bassel al-Assad International Airport.

Background – The Return to Geneva III Talks

The “substantive” talks began in Geneva on Monday after having been paused almost immediately after their start last month on February 03. For an overview of what has happened in the intervening period since the first attempt at Geneva III talks was paused see “Syria Catch-Up: The Road Back to Geneva III.”