Syria Catch-Up: Recap of Round One of the Geneva Talks

Today, April 13th, marks the start of the second round of Intra-Syria negotiations in Geneva. Before we resume our daily tracking of the progress in Geneva, we wanted to present our readers with a brief overview of what happened in round one and the intervening weeks. Check back tomorrow when we begin our daily blog coverage of round two.

After a false start in January during which neither side was ready yet to begin talks, UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura reconvened the Intra-Syrian Geneva talks in March. This was made possible largely due to the work of Russia and the U.S. as heads of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG). In February they issued the Munich Statement calling for humanitarian access to besieged areas and a nationwide cessation of hostilities, and then proceeded to push the Assad government and the opposition to agree. The subsequent calm in Syria and burst of approved humanitarian convoys able to access several of Syria’s besieged communities, created the necessary political space for both sides to return to Geneva in March and participate in a two-week round of proximity talks, which we are referring to here as the first round of Geneva talks (some others consider the aborted attempt in January to be “round one”).

First Round Summary

The first round of proximity talks in March, which lasted almost two weeks, had De Mistura shuttling back and forth between the Syrian government delegation and the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, and holding meetings with additional Syrian stakeholder groups. The upshot, as De Mistura put it: ”no breakdowns, no walkouts and no de-legitimization or personal de-legitimization.” In terms of maintaining momentum, the talks did continue to engage both parties, potentially paving the way for continuing talks. The verbal sniping between sides was relatively muted, with the most notable/entertaining exception being an incident where Bashar al-Jaafari, the head of the government delegation, called the lead negotiator of the HNC delegation a terrorist and said there would not be direct talks “unless this terrorist apologises and also shaves off his beard.” The HNC’s lead negotiator Mohammad Alloush is a political leader of the Islamist faction Jaish al-Islam, which the government considers a terrorist organization.

On the other hand, little progress was made on the substantive issues laid out in UNSC Resolution 2254: a new constitution, free and fair elections, and political transition. The HNC presented documents laying out its positions on these issues early on, the government delegation focused instead on talking about “basic principles” such as the format of the talks and issues such as terrorism, undermining De Mistura’s attempts to wade into the negotiating agenda. The consummate diplomat, even De Mistura could not hide his frustration with the government delegation by the end of the first round, bemoaning the fact that “the government delegation was extremely focused on the issue about principles in order to be able then to talk about everything else.”

In an attempt to prevent the second round of Geneva talks from being similarly derailed by questions of “basic principles,” De Mistura released his own document, the “Essential Principles of a Political Solution in Syria,” on the final day of talks. In this document, De Mistura attempted to capture what he viewed as essential points of convergence between the two sides.

Throughout the first round, a handful of additional delegations arrived, including the Moscow Group, the Cairo Group, the Astana Group, and the Internal Group (aka the Hmeimeem Group). Containing a mix of Moscow-friendly dissidents and internal opposition groups tolerated by the Assad regime, for the most part these delegations have been formed with the support of Russia. The Syrian government has enthusiastically welcomed these groups – which do not call for Assad’s removal – into the process and tried unsuccessfully to have them replace or drown out the voice of the primary opposition coalition, the HNC. De Mistura did meet with these groups and accept their input into the process as per his inclusive mandate from the Security Council, but continues to structure the talks around the two primary sides: the government delegation and the HNC.

With regards to the cessation of hostilities and the humanitarian access – both continued throughout the two-weeks of Geneva talks in March but were beginning to crumble. In a sense these initiatives – the cessation, the humanitarian access, and the talks – act as a three-legged stool: the cessation of hostilities and the aid access is seen as necessary to bring both sides to the negotiating table, and without progress in the negotiations the actors on the ground have little incentive to maintain access or the pause in fighting.

Outside of the actual talks, Russia’s announcement on the first day that it was withdrawing “the main part” of its military forces was welcomed by the international community as a signal that Russia was serious about pushing its ally Syria to the negotiating table. Although subsequent analysis suggests that Russia did more reconfiguring of military assets than actual withdrawing, the fact that Russian fighter jets have generally abstained from targeting the non-ISIS/non-Jabhat al-Nusra opposition groups since the announcement has been a significant and consequential shift.

While a few representatives of smaller Kurdish are scattered amongst the delegations in Geneva, the exclusion of Syria’s main Kurdish group the PYD/YPG continues to be a point of contention. In light of their exclusion from the first round of talks, Kurds in Syria announced their intent to establish a form of federal self-rule in three Kurdish-controlled territories in the north of the country, a plan which has received criticism from other players. Again barred from the second round of talks starting this week, the Kurds have continued pushing forward efforts to implement this plan.

Over the Break

In the nearly three-week recess following the first round of talks, the situation on the ground has deteriorated significantly. Jan Egeland, De Mistura’s Special Advisor who is heading the efforts of the ISSG’s Humanitarian Access Task Force, has expressed his disappointment that the burst of humanitarian convoy approvals seen after the Munich Declaration seems to have slowed to a halt, and there has been little progress on other related issues. “The government has to live up to its promises, up to the new procedures, and has to allow us to help people,” Egeland told reporters on April 8. Things are no better on the military side, where the cessation of hostilities seems to be on the verge of total collapse as both the government and armed groups ramp up offensives in various parts of the country that appear to violate the agreement. U.S State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that the USG is “very, very concerned about the recent increase in violence,” and told press that “the vast majority of violations have been on the part of the regime.” Fears have been further stoked by a statement by Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi that Syria was planning to “liberate Aleppo” with Russian support, although Russia has downplayed this idea.

On the political side, during the recess there has been a predictable swirl of rumors circulating about shakeups and strategies on both sides. De Mistura has been on the move, visiting Turkey, Syria, Iran, and sending team members to Saudi Arabia, all in an effort “to verify the international and regional stakeholders’ position in order to see how is the level of critical positive mass leading to concrete results in the next round of talks.” Given the government’s reluctance to discuss political transition during round one, De Mistura’s public statement that “the next round of the talks need to be quite concrete in the direction of a political process leading to a real beginning of a political transition,” may be setting the bar too high.

For more details, see TSI’s earlier blog posts on the Geneva talks:

  • Intra-Syrian Geneva Talks” – Daily coverage of the January 2016 false start attempt at Geneva talks.
  • The Road Back to Geneva III” – Covers the Munich Declaration, the ceasefire implementation, and everything else that occurred between January and March.
  • Geneva Talks Resume” – Daily coverage of the first full round of Geneva talks in March 2016.