TSI live updates: Intra-Syrian Geneva Talks (Negotiating Round Two – April 2016)

This blog post will be updated daily with summaries of the developments during the the second (April 2016) negotiating round of the Intra-Syrian talks in Geneva.

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

Wednesday, 27 April 2016:

DAY ELEVEN – Is This the End?

On Wednesday Staffan de Mistura officially ended the April round of Intra-Syrian talks in Geneva. That evening he briefed the UN Security Council (UNSC) in a closed session before speaking publicly to the press. Just a few hours before his press conference, a Syrian government airstrike targeted and destroyed an MSF-supported hospital in opposition-controlled Eastern Aleppo, killing more than 50 people, including the area’s last pediatrician. This incident has elicited intense international outrage, and related questioning from Member States is likely one of the main reasons that the UNSC briefing ran long. Finally, around 1:00am Geneva time, an exhausted De Mistura began his press conference. He began with an acknowledgement of the bleak situation on the ground, stating that the current round of talks “have been overshadowed, let’s be frank.”

A child victim of airstrikes on Aleppo’s Al-Quds neighborhood on April 27th.

De Mistura repeated his previous assertion that despite the HNC’s walkout, De Mistura’s team was able to continue “substantive technical” meetings with a few experts that stayed behind. He stressed the flexible nature of the talks’ proximity format, and suggested that he was be using this type of technical meeting more frequently moving forward. It appears that instead of progressing to face-to-face negotiations, the already dysfunctional talks may be moving in the opposite direction and devolving into a scenario where Special Envoy de Mistura will shuttle back and forth between capitals instead of rooms in the Palais des Nations, and having “technical meetings” instead of formal negotiations.

Staffan de Mistura announced that he was releasing a “Mediator’s Summary” of the April talks. Much of the information in the summary is not new: the agenda for the talks was set in UNSC Resolution 2254 (2015) and that the main focus of this round was supposed to be political transition, the deteriorating situation on the ground negatively impacted the talks’ progress, the Special Envoy has identified some areas of commonality between the two sides, and that the ISSG needs to reestablish the ceasefire and increase humanitarian access in order to make the talks credible and viable moving forward.

Mediator’s Summary

De Mistura’s Mediator’s Summary says that during this past round of talks the parties laid out their “visions of political transition including in relation to governance,” but that “further detail on practical aspects of how a viable transition will be created is required” from both sides and “substantial gaps” still exist between their respective visions. It also remains to be determined “how the respective visions of the two negotiating parties conform to the requirements of UNS Resolution 2254,” as well as the preceding Vienna Statements and Geneva Communiqué embodied therein.

The real meat of the Mediator’s Summary can be found in Annex I, which lists practical “fundamental issues” that De Mistura believes need to be addressed to move forward. This Annex I list seems to include the vast majority of items that should be (or should already have been) addressed at the negotiations: how power will be exercised in the transitional period, how leadership will be selected, and how to keep the situation on the ground calm in the meantime. By contrast, a central point that De Mistura has made repeatedly now to demonstrate progress is that both sides have accepted the fact that they are discussing political transition, whereas before the word “transition” was off the table: “You remember when the word transition, at least in certain area, was taboo?” he told reporters, “Not any more. Everyone acknowledges that that is the agenda.” (Note that the government delegation has been the only barrier to discussing political transition)

The bottom line is that in two rounds of negotiations – three if you consider the aborted January attempt to convene talks – De Mistura has finally gotten the Syrian government to include the phrase “political transition” in its vocabulary. But, there has still not been progress on discussing details or practical steps towards this transition and serious doubts remain whether the Syrian government’s vision of “transition” is anything more than a rebranding of the current government, complete with Assad at the helm. It is not surprising then that De Mistura is already hinting that he may try to fit in multiple additional rounds of talks before the six-month (July) deadline laid out in Resolution 2254, although at this point there is doubt as to whether he can even get the opposition back for one additional round given the Syrian government’s continuing escalation on the ground.

Moving Forward

In the days following the end of the April round on Wednesday, the number of violent attacks rose across Syria. Of particular concern is the situation in Aleppo city, where government airstrikes on hospitals, bakeries, mosques, and other civilian areas of opposition-held areas have prompted an international “Aleppo is Burning” movement, with solidarity protests held around the world. Cries of outrage and condemnation have come from UN OHCHR, the WHO, UNICEF, the OIC, the U.S. Government, dozens of NGOs, and many more.

This continued breakdown of the ceasefire has prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity. The U.S. and Russia quickly brokered a partial temporary ceasefire – Russia has referred to this as a “regime of silence” and the U.S. called it a “recommitment” – to apply to the Damascus Countryside for 24 hours and Latakia governorate for 72 hours. The fact that this new temporary ceasefire does not include Aleppo has made the move look more like a desperate ‘Hail Mary’ by the ISSG co-chairs than any sort of progress.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has reportedly resisted De Mistura’s urgent call for the ISSG to convene an emergency ministerial-level meeting, and other officials have indicated that Russia will not put pressure on Damascus to stop the aerial attacks on Aleppo. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been forced to rush to Geneva to meet with key stakeholders including the Foreign Ministers of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and with Staffan de Mistura, who will then fly to Moscow to talk to Lavrov. It seems as if perhaps the ISSG is devolving into proximity talks as well.


UN Envoy de Mistura & US Kerry meeting to discuss cessation of hostilities throughout #Syria in particular Aleppo.

De Mistura did not announce a target date for the next round of talks when he closed out the first round last Wednesday, saying that there needed to be progress on the ground before the next round was announced: “hence, my appeal for a US-Russian urgent initiative at the highest levels, because the legacy of both President Obama and President Putin is linked to the success of what has been a unique initiative which started very well and needs to end very well: the hudna. Plus an ISSG new meeting at the ministerial level, in order to relaunch what has been for a moment put in danger. That is what we want to obtain before we actually announce the new round of talks, because that would certainly help the round of talks to become credible and effective.”

Will the U.S. and Russia manage to get things back on track so that talks can continue? Right now it seems unlikely.

Though the negotiating round has ended, we will continue to provide updates and analysis on key developments in Syria. Check back soon.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016:

DAY TEN – Awaiting De Mistura’s Final Announcement

Bashar al-Jaafari of the Syrian government delegation gave a very brief read out to the press following their third and final meeting of the current round with UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura. He said that during the meeting they raised many issues – particularly that of terrorism – and reiterated concerns about foreign countries sponsoring terrorists and undermining the political process. Overall he called the round “useful and constructive” and said that the delegation would leave Geneva on Wednesday.

JamilQadri Jamil spoke on behalf of the Moscow, Astana, and Cairo Platforms, after their joint meeting with De Mistura. Jamil criticized the HNC, telling reports that they do not want a political solution, and that their actions have hurt Syrians and exacerbated the violence on the ground. At the same time, he said that they wanted all of the “opposition” delegations to unite as one group because the government “needs a single delegation” to talk with. This call is in line with a long-running strategy by Russia and the Syrian government to dilute the Syrian opposition, which calls for Assad’s removal, with “patriotic” or “internal” opposition members that are tolerated by the Assad regime. Note that Jamil is known as “Putin’s man in Syria,” in Syria and has been repeatedly rejected by mainstream Syrian political opposition groups due to his pro-Assad positions.

Members of the Internal Damascus Platform also had their third and final meeting with De Mistura in the current negotiating round. This group, also known as the “Hmeimeem Group” after the Russian military base in Latakia, is a self-proclaimed “opposition” delegation but is in practice strongly pro-government and contains active members of the current Syrian government. During the press conference, the head of group, Elian Masaad, said that they agreed with the government’s call for a national unity government and repeated Jaafari’s talking points that the HNC is sabotaging the talks and “are being misguided by certain countries.” Masaad also said that they agreed with all 12 points of De Mistura’s “Essential Principles” document except for the item that calls for reintegrating armed opposition groups (AOGs) into a unified Syrian military. Instead, the Internal Damascus Platform takes the position that AOG members should become normal citizens again in the future and can join the Syrian military like anyone else as long as they do not have “blood on their hands.”

A spokesman said that Staffan de Mistura is scheduled to brief the UN Security Council via video conference on Wednesday after officially ending the current round of the Intra-Syrian talks. He may also announce that they will hold the third and final negotiating round in May, but the deteriorating situation on the ground has cast a shadow over their future.

Monday, 25 April 2016:

DAY NINE – De Mistura’s Transition Plan Leaked?

On Monday the Syrian government delegation met with De Mistura and his team as expected. Bashar al-Jaafari devoted much of their press conference after the meeting to once again ranting about terrorism, sponsored primarily by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. His comments were similar both in tone and message to those he made on Friday and he once again departed immediately after speaking, not taking any questions from the press. He accused members of the Riyadh delegation (the HNC) for inciting the recent violence and blamed foreign powers for allowing the terrorists to participate of in the Geneva talks in the first place. He briefly noted that they had a “rich discussion” with De Mistura regarding their amendments to his “Essential Principles of a Political Solution in Syria” document and planned to meet again on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, The New Arab published an article claiming to have received a leaked version of Staffan de Mistura’s transitional plan for Syria. The plan focuses on reforming institutions and describes the creation of a Transitional Governing Body with 40% government, 40% opposition, and 20% civil society membership, but with Assad retaining power during the transitional period. It is difficult to imagine a plan like this gaining the support of much of the opposition, for whom the removal of Bashar al-Assad is fundamental. Earlier in April, another plan was presented to the HNC that kept Assad in power in a ceremonial role while devolving power to three deputies, which was reportedly rejected out of hand.

Although Kerry and Lavrov reportedly had a phone call today, there is no word on convening the ISSG meeting that De Mistura has called for in recent remarks, in order to get the cessation of hostilities and humanitarian aid deliveries back on track.

Friday, 22 April 2016:

DAY EIGHT – The Talks Limp On… For Now

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 12.21.04 AM

Staffan de Mistura in Geneva on Friday

During his much-anticipated briefing on Friday, UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura told the press that: “So bottom line, I plan to continue the proximity talks both at formal level and at technical level until next week, probably Wednesday as originally planned.” He referenced the flexible nature of the talks’ indirect format, suggesting he would continue informal discussions with the HNC on technical matters related to transition despite the fact that they had formally paused their participation. De Mistura indicated that this sort of technical discussion had been ongoing all week since the HNC suspended its participation on Monday, saying they had still been able to continue “very deep meetings” at the hotel rooms of HNC representatives, late into the night, and had been able, “perhaps to go even deeper than we ever had in understanding their vision and trying to explain how we can help in materializing that vision of the Transitional Governing Body.” A U.S. State Department Spokesperson said that the HNC, which withdrew all of its members from Geneva as of Friday, would keep “technical teams in Geneva until Tuesday.”

De Mistura admitted that he had “not yet got there” with the Syrian government delegation, and told reporters that he will use the final days of the round of talks to try and better understand what the “broad based” solution that the Syrian government is now calling for actually entails: “Is it going to be cosmetic? Is it going to be real?” He said that he hoped to make more progress on this matter during their next scheduled meeting on Monday.

Bashar al-Jaafari also spoke in Geneva on Friday. He appeared to dash De Mistura’s hopes that their Monday meeting would address the government’s ideas for Syria’s transitional period, stressing instead that the whole of their Monday meeting with De Mistura would be devoted to reviewing the government delegation’s suggested modifications to the “Basic Principles” document from the prior negotiating round in March.

Al Jaafari also gave a read out of their Friday meeting with De Mistura, which focused primarily on humanitarian issues. He presented what he described as the Syrian government’s humanitarian achievements, claiming that it played an important role – along with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and UN agencies – In reaching many hotspots with humanitarian aid convoys in the first four months of 2016, including a major convoy to the government-besieged area of al-Rastan, Homs just this past week. He neglected to mention that it has been the Syrian government actually denying aid convoys from reaching most of these areas to begin with. He also leveled a slew of accusations at members of the ISSG for supporting terrorism in Syria and imposing coercive sanctions against the country, blaming foreign powers on the HTF for shedding “crocodile tears” for the humanitarian catastrophe occurring inside of Syria while actually being the cause of it.

With regards to the cessation of hostilities, De Mistura acknowledged that the situation on the ground, particularly in Aleppo was “very worrisome.” He said that “According to all objective criteria comparing to the past, the cessation of hostilities is still in effect,” but to get it back on track “will require urgent efforts because of what we have been witnessing the last few days.” De Mistura will speak publicly again on Wednesday at the end of this round of talks.

The original schedule laid out by Special Envoy De Mistura called for a third and final negotiating round after the current round, at the end of which he had hoped to have a plan for a political transition in Syria. Given the lack of progress so far, it seems unlikely that this schedule will remain intact. The next steps will depend largely on the ISSG co-chairs, the U.S. and Russia, to take immediate action as opposed to the warring parties themselves.

On Friday President Obama commented on the talks during a joint press conference with UK Prime Minister David Cameron in London. He voiced some concerns: “I have always been skeptical about Mr. Putin’s actions and motives inside of Syria. He is — along with Iran — the preeminent backer of a murderous regime that I do not believe can regain legitimacy within his country because he’s murdered a lot of people.” But then returned to the U.S. government’s line, noting that he had asked President Putin “to put more pressure on Assad” and indicated in return “that we would continue to try to get the moderate opposition to stay at the negotiating table in Geneva.”

Thursday, 21 April 2016:

DAY SEVEN – “Modest but real” Humanitarian Progress?

Both the ISSG’s Ceasefire Task Force (CTF) and Humanitarian Taskforce (HTF) met today. De Mistura gave a briefing after attending an HTF meeting, saying he would save discussion of the progress at the talks themselves until tomorrow. The highlights: De Mistura stressed what he called “modest but real progress regarding the humanitarian situation in Syria,” yet what he described as progress rang hollow for many Syria observers. He held up and read from the UN OCHA infographic below:

Staffan de Mistura said that 12 out of 18 besieged areas had been reached, some several times, to the point of access being “sustained.” Note: The six areas they still have not reached have not changed since the previous round of talks in March, and the government of Syria is besieging all of these six. It should also be noted that there are in reality nearly 50 besieged communities in Syria, so the UN figures in any scenario are woefully inadequate (See Siege Watch for more information). Another thing that the graphic, and De Mistura, fail to mention is that the number of people reached is not the same as the number of people saved, since the supplies are often insufficient or inappropriate to meet the needs of those living under siege. In besieged areas such as Madaya and Moadamiya (which, having been reached each several times, De Mistura might be referring to as receiving “sustained” access), people have continued to die of starvation and a lack of access to medical care. De Mistura noted that medical items continue to be removed from convoys by the government of Syria, which he said “is not only worrisome but unacceptable according to international law.” He did not indicate how the UN plans to solve this continuing violation.

Among the other signs of “modest but real” progress he cited:

  • A significant medical evacuation of 515 people from the four towns: Madaya, Zabadani, Fuah, and Kefraya.
  • A fact-finding mission to the long-besieged town of Daraya which he called a “wake-up call” that determined that which the rest of us already knew: “there are children there are civilians and there is a need for food and medicine.” The visit did not bring any aid, and there is no sign yet that the Syrian government will approve an aid convoy
  • Eight successful airdrops by WFP to Deir Ezzor, WFP is planning to double the level of air drops
  • He hopes that they will begin a vaccination campaign on April 24.
  • He will be nominating an individual on his team to work full time on the issue of detainees and abductees

For those interested in all of the details of De Mistura’s humanitarian update, the transcript of his remarks can be read here, and the video can be watched here.

Meanwhile more members of the HNC left Geneva, including the delegation head, Asaad al-Zoubi. HNC Spokesman Salem al-Meslet repeated the HNC’s contentions that they would return to the talks when women detainees are released and humanitarian aid is sent to besieged areas: “We are not here to end this round or to end this political process, but we are here to see something for our own people.” He told reporters that there have been about 2,000 CoH violations, and that there have been no responses from the two countries that created it (Russia and the U.S.).

Wednesday, 20 April 2016:

DAY SIX – “Absurd theater”

Staffan de Mistura’s Deputy Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy met with the Syrian government delegation on Wednesday. Jaafari’s measured tone while he addressed the press after their meeting belied the inflammatory nature of his remarks. Jaafari spoke of the “Hollywoodian” drama of the HNC’s withdrawal from the Intra-Syrian talks, calling it “irresponsible tension and extremism,” and “absurd theater,” while pointing out that the government’s delegation remains committed to the talks and fighting terrorism. Of the HNC’s absence he said: “the talks will not lose anything, because to begin with they do not represent the Syrian people. Quite on the contrary, by leaving they may be taking away a major obstacle, and that will allow us to reach a solution, because these are a mix of extremists, terrorists, and mercenaries,” sent by the Saudi family. He went on to state that regardless of what was being discussed in Geneva, “The political solution resides in a broad-based national unity government, and a constitution, and parliamentary elections.” Any group that thinks otherwise “is living an illusion, and by that they are undermining the Geneva talks, wasting their time and our time.” When asked who should be part of this unity government he said “the national opposition,” the current government, technocrats, and independent figures. The “national opposition” here, refers to government-approved parties and figures who have not called for Assad to step aside.

The Syrian government delegation on Wednesday

The Syrian government delegation on Wednesday

Jaafari took particular umbrage at a question asked by a Turkish reporter from Anadolu news agency, launching a barrage of accusations at the Turkish government in response. With regards to the fact that the government has continued to deny humanitarian aid access to besieged areas of Syria he gave a nonsensical answer about how Erdogan’s terrorists are besieged towns like Madaya and Daraya from the inside, and pro-government towns like Fuah and Kefraya from the outside.

The HNC representatives still in Geneva held an event on the sidelines of the official talks in which they focused on the humanitarian situation inside of Syria and continuing attacks by the government. At both this event and in comments to the press from HNC spokesmen, the group has defended its decision to withdraw from the talks.

Remaining HNC representatives hold a side event in Geneva on Wednesday

Remaining HNC representatives hold a side event in Geneva on Wednesday

The brazenly derisive statements by Jaafari, coming on the heels of yesterday’s impassioned speech from the HNC’s Riad Hijab, indicate that both sides are finally taking off their masks, abandoning attempts to suppress their anger for the sake of diplomacy. Jaafari’s statements today attacked not only the HNC and states that support the opposition like Saudi Arabic and Turkey, but also the UN process and ISSG efforts. While the government delegation has technically remained at the talks, there are not really any talks to speak of. The only thing that is clear is that Staffan de Mistura has completely lost control of this process.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016:

DAY FIVE – Things Fall Apart

On Tuesday, UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura met with various stakeholder groups including the Syrian Women Advisory Board, the Moscow-Cairo Group, the Internal Damascus Platform, and the ISSG Taskforces. While De Mistura’s team and the ISSG diplomats scrabbled to salvage the talks, the HNC representatives began leaving Geneva.

De Mistura held a two-hour meeting with the Cairo, Astana, and Moscow Platforms together. Representatives of the Cairo Platform spoke to the press independently after the meeting. They appeared conciliatory towards the HNC, dodging journalists’ attempts to get them to make critical or inflammatory statements. Cairo Platform representative Jihad Makdissi said that they understand the position of the “Riyadh Group,” (the HNC) but hope they will resume participation and that his group did not see the actions of the HNC as marginalizing their role in the process. At several points in the press conference members of the delegation even recognized the HNC as the main opposition negotiating delegation, referring to the group by its preferred moniker instead of “the Riyadh Group,” and noting that UN Security Council Resolution 2254 says it is important “for various opposition groups to take part in the process, including Moscow, our own platform, but mainly the HNC.”

This tone from the Cairo Group highlights meaningful differences between the alternative “opposition” platforms or delegations. While Russia and the Syrian government clearly want all of the alternative “opposition” groups to be considered as equals in order to dilute the influence of the primary HNC at the talks, the Cairo Group is the only one of these delegations that was not formed directly by a Russian sponsored effort, and accordingly is less vulnerable to Russian influence. [Note: See the addendum to our post from “Thursday, 14 April 2016: DAY TWO – The Frustrated Humanitarian Taskforce” of the current round, for the Cairo Group’s vision for a transitional government]

Representatives of the Moscow and Astana Platforms, both of which are closely tied to Russia, spoke to the press together and took a much more negative tone towards the HNC, which they refer to as the “Riyadh Group”. They said that their Platforms work closely together and partially cooperate with the Cairo Platform. They made it clear that they want the talks to continue regardless of the HNC’s withdrawal and would not accept any delay. With regard to their vision for a future Syrian government, they said that the government cannot continue as it was and a broad-based government was therefore unacceptable, but also called the Riyadh Group’s transitional governing body proposal “impossible.” “We do not want a revolutionary council,” said Fateh Jamous.

The Internal Damascus Platform, also called the Hmeimeem group, met with De Mistura’s Deputy, Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy. This group is thinly veiled in its pro-government leanings and given little weight as an actual opposition delegation. When speaking to the press after their meeting with Ramzy, they accused the HNC of “systematically seem[ing] to sabotage the political process,” and sarcastically suggested that “perhaps they are not pleased to see Daesh and Al Nusra Front suffering repeated defeats on the ground.”

The HNC's Riad Hijab gives a speech before departing from Geneva

The HNC’s Riad Hijab gives a speech before departing from Geneva

Although the HNC did not meet with De Mistura, the group’s General Coordinator Riad Hijab did give an impassioned speech, before departing from Geneva along with a significant number of his HNC colleagues. He said that the remainder of the delegation would gradually be leaving throughout the week, with the final representatives departing on Friday. He explained that “It is not suitable, neither morally nor on the humanitarian side, to be part of negotiations when Syrians are dying daily from sieges, hunger, bombings, poisonous gases and barrel bombs,” and went on to enumerate the HNC’s many concerns. Briefly, these concerns included Iran’s mobilization of thousands of additional fighters during the CoH, and the Syrian government not respecting the truce and working with its allies to besiege Aleppo. He called on rebels on the ground to keep fighting against the government forces in response. Hijab also stated that they will not accept any of the other alternative “opposition” groups as legitimate representatives at the talks and said that they will not accept any solution that prolongs Assad’s rule. Hijab called on De Mistura to set a timetable for transition, and called for the ISSG members to force progress on the humanitarian aid access and release of detainees, as a precondition for talks to continue.

Russia and the U.S. appeared to be at odds over the situation. In an “intense conversation” on Monday, President Obama reportedly urged President Putin to put more pressure on the Syrian government to respect the CoH. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that “the position of the opposition groups is understandable, given the refusal of the Assad regime to steadfastly live up to the commitments that they made in the context of Cessation of Hostilities.” At the same time, Russia’s UN Ambassador Alexei Borodavkin called the HNC’s decision to suspend its participation in proximity talks a “mistake.” He dismissed their claims that they were pausing participation due to violations in the CoH and the lack of humanitarian aid delivery, and said that instead, “according to our information it is just because they do not have a clear political position.” He also said that the talks would continue smoothly with the remaining Hmeimeem, Moscow, and Cairo delegations.

Meanwhile, Syrian government airstrikes on two different crowded markets killed more than 44 people in Maarat al-Numan and Kafr Nabl in Idlib governorate, the most deadly incidents since the CoH came into force in February.

Monday, 18 April 2016:

DAY FOUR – The HNC Suspends its Participation

UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura met with both the HNC and the Syrian government delegations in Geneva on Monday for what he called “an intense day” of talks. Despite his attempts to temper expectations, it seemed possible that both the Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) and the Intra-Syrian talks could collapse in the near future.

De Mistura collects his thoughts after an

De Mistura speaks during an “intense day” in Geneva

The Syrian government delegation spent much of their Monday meeting with De Mistura complaining about the Israeli government, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that the Golan Heights would never be returned to Syria. In the press conference following the government delegation’s meeting with De Mistura, Bashar al-Jaafari made a range of allegations claiming that that not only is Israel supporting ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, but also suggesting that the Syrian opposition was similarly in bed with Israel. He also went into more detail with allegations that a member of the HNC delegation has close ties to designated terrorists. After these inflammatory remarks at a press conference in Geneva, Al Jaafari did not take questions. De Mistura on his part rejected discussion of this matter stating the official UN response that the issue of the Golan is handled and addressed by UN Security Council Resolutions 242 (1967) and 497 (1981).

The HNC sent only three representatives to speak with De Mistura on Monday and cancelled their standard post-meeting press conference. De Mistura did talk to the press afterwards, and confirmed the rumors that the HNC had decided to suspend its formal participation in the talks, against the backdrop of worsening military and humanitarian situation on the ground. He said that the delegation would remain in Geneva however, and would possibly pursue technical discussions with De Mistura and his team on the points related to the political transition. He was very particular on the wording of this announcement, repeating twice that the HNC had decided to “postpone their formal participation in the Palais,” in order to “express their own displeasure and concern on the humanitarian situation degradation and on the problems related to the cessation of hostilities.”

An HNC statement on its deciison to suspend participation in the Intra-Syrian talks

An HNC statement on its decision to suspend participation in the Intra-Syrian talks

On Tuesday, both the Humanitarian Task Force (HTF) and the Ceasefire Task Force (CTF) are scheduled to convene. The suspension of the HNC’s participation in talks increases the pressure on Russia and the U.S. to resuscitate the progress on military and humanitarian matters that had allowed the Intra-Syrian Geneva III talks to get off the ground in the first place. This situation is reminiscent of the ill-fated “first round” of the talks, which never got off the ground in January 2016. At that time the HNC threatened to not participate in the talks at all due to the dismal situation on the ground in Syria, which was experiencing even higher than normal levels of violence due in large part to Russian aerial bombardments in support of the Syrian government, and the lack of humanitarian access to besieged and hard-to-reach communities. Progress in these two areas is mandated in the same UN Security Council Resolution that laid out the framework for the Intra-Syrian talks, Resolution 2254 (20115).

De Mistura has said that his team plans to continue discussions and consultations throughout the week, and would take stock of the situation on Friday we will take stock of the situation on Friday to determine to move forward. All eyes are now on Russia and the U.S. to see if they can turn things around.

Friday, 15 April 2016:

DAY THREE – The Syrian Government Arrives

The Syrian government delegation arrived in Geneva on Friday morning, two days after De Mistura started this second negotiating round. The delegation went straight into a meeting with De Mistura, which delegation head Bashar al-Jaafari called “constructive and fruitful.” He said that they discussed De Mistura’s “Essential Principles of a Political Solution in Syria,” document and that they submitted amendments which they will discuss further with De Mistura on Monday after his team has time to review them. The “Essential Principles” document was produced by De Mistura at the end of the previous round of talks in an attempt to clarify basic points of agreement in order to move into a discussion of the actual agenda as laid out in UN Security Council Resolution 2254: political transition, a new constitution, and elections (for more details on the De Mistura’s “Essential Principles” see our DAY NINE – The End of Round One entry from last month’s TSI Geneva blog).

Bashar al-Jaafari, head of the Syrian government delegation, addresses the media in Geneva after meeting with Staffan de Mistura.

Bashar al-Jaafari, head of the Syrian government delegation, addresses the media in Geneva after meeting with Staffan de Mistura.

The prospect of a lengthy back and forth on the “Essential Principles” document could allow the Syrian government to once again avoid discussing the Geneva agenda items, and would dash De Mistura’s attempts to make real progress this round. This eventuality raises the very real prospect of the process collapsing altogether. The deterioration of circumstances on the ground from March-April – In the recess between the first negotiating rounds – has already cast a long shadow on the talks. In just the past few days, the increase in government attacks – many of which appear to be violations of the cessation of hostilities – portends an imminent return to pre-“cessation” levels of violence.

The HNC delegation also met with De Mistura on Friday; their second such meeting in the current negotiating round. During their press conference after the meeting, they gave little away regarding the proposed government amendments to De Mistura’s document or the future of the negotiations. Instead they reiterated their belief that the Syrian government is not really interested in negotiations and drew attention to the government’s military offensive near Aleppo and new political arrests in Suwayda province.

Meanwhile, rumors circulated that during his meeting with the HNC, De Mistura proposed a transitional government in which Assad stays in power, with three empowered Vice Presidents appointed from across the political spectrum. The HNC did not publicly acknowledge that such a proposal was made, but according to reports this idea was quickly rejected. (UPDATE: We have confirmed with a source that this proposal was in fact made by De Mistura to the HNC)

Staffan de Mistura cancelled his press conference for the day.

Thursday, 14 April 2016:

DAY TWO – The Frustrated Humanitarian Taskforce

[Moscow-Cairo Platforms also met with De Mistura, see addendum at end of post]

Since the government delegation had not yet arrived in Geneva, De Mistura cannot resume his alternating days with the opposition and government until Friday. Instead, on Thursday he attended a meeting of the ISSG Humanitarian Taskforce on, and afterwards briefed reporters. He opened his remarks on a somber note reflective of the the increasingly dismal situation on the ground: “I cannot deny that everyone in the meeting was disappointed; indeed many of them are actually frustrated by the lack of new convoys,” to besieged areas. Apparently the Taskforce members discussed raising: “a wakeup call in order to make sure that we don’t passively, during these meetings, just acknowledge the fact that there is no improvement.” De Mistura did not provide any details on how they intend to do this, or to regain momentum in reaching besieged areas with life-saving aid.

De Mistura briefs reports of the frustration expressed by Humanitarian Taskforce members on Thursday, April 14

De Mistura briefs reports of the frustration expressed by Humanitarian Taskforce members on Thursday, April 14

Additionally, De Mistura noted that the “very major” medical evacuation of up to 500 people from the besieged towns of Madaya and Zabadani announced last week by Jan Egeland, “has not happened, and we regret it.” The challenge seems to be one of reciprocity, with the government wanting one-for-one evacuations from the rebel-besieged Fuaa and Kefraya in return. Reading between the lines of De Mistura’s statement, it seems that UN teams are unable to identify a similar number of seriously ill people in Fuaa and Kefraya to evacuate.

On the other side De Mistura highlighted a number of “good news” items, although for the most part the items he listed are aspirational as opposed to actual developments:

  • The WFP has made three aid airdrops to Deir Ezzor, where almost 200,000 people remain besieged. Aid distribution from these efforts has not yet begun.
  • A vaccination campaign is hopefully scheduled to begin on April 24, and it appears to have Syrian government approval.
  • There is the possibility for the UN organization UNMAS to contribute to demining efforts in Palmyra.
  • The Syrian government promised De Mistura that moving forward, they would allow “all medical items, except the following: surgical items atropine and anxiety pills, but would allow at our own request, caesarean surgery surgical items and all other medical items,” in approved aid convoys. If this promise materialized it would be a major achievement, because the removal of medical items from humanitarian convoys by the government of Syria continues to stymie international efforts to help those in need. Based on past experience, it seems doubtful that this promise will be upheld however.

Outside of the talks, both sides ramped up their rhetoric on the key sticking point: Bashar al-Assad. HNC Spokesman Salim al-Muslet told Reuters that with the exception of Assad and a few key figures, they would accept members of the current government in a transitional government: “We will have no veto, as long as they don’t send us criminals, as long as they don’t send us people involved in the killing of Syrians.” In response, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said that the opposition must let go of its “dream” for a transitional government, and on the removal of Assad he told the AP that: “This will not happen, not now, nor tomorrow nor ever.”

With no signs of a path forward for negotiations on the central issue of a transitional government, and both the ceasefire and humanitarian access lines of efforts on life support, the prospects for a breakthrough at Geneva appear increasingly slim.

[addendum, not in original post] The Moscow and Cairo Platforms also met with De Mistura on Thursday. Jihad Makdissi spoke on behalf of the groups afterwards, and said that the Cairo Platform had laid out their vision for a Syrian government based on decisions made during their meetings in Cairo. The want the transitional government to hold full executive power, and include five component institutions:

  1. Transitional national council (will deal with constitution)
  2. Transitional (joint) government
  3. Higher council for justice
  4. National military council under command of transitional government and will deal with fighting terrorism and integrating armed (non-terrorist affiliated) factions into the state
  5. Higher commission for justice and reconciliation

Wednesday, 13 April 2016:

DAY ONE – The Talks Resume


During the nearly 3-week interlude since the first round of talks, De Mistura shuttled between international stakeholders in an attempt to shore up support for the process. He told reporters that “the main purpose was to sound the authorities in these capitals about their own advice on how to make sure that this current phase of the Intra-Syrian talks are as productive or as effective as possible… With all of them I have been very clear that what we aim at is actually an agenda which is based on political transition, with the issue of governance and constitution as per (Security Council) resolution 2254.”

The recess also saw serious challenges to the cessation of hostilities and humanitarian access, both of which are considered critical to maintaining momentum in Geneva. While some believe the cessation of hostilities is as good as dead at this point, De Mistura downplayed this notion upon his return to Geneva, saying that the violations “have been still incidents and not a bush fire,” and that “in spite of the several and serious incidents the cessation of hostilities is still holding.” He called on the members of the ISSG’s Ceasefire Taskforce to reaffirm their commitment to the cessation of hostilities and take action to ensure its continuation.

The opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC) did decide to return to Geneva despite the discouraging developments on the ground, stating that the Syrian government’s escalations are an attempt to scuttle the talks. “The HNC is committed to the political process, and will be in Geneva this week.” HNC spokesman Salem al-Muslat said. The Syrian government delegation delayed its return to Geneva in order to hold controversial parliamentary elections this week. They are expected to arrive back in Geneva by Friday the 15th.

Day 1 Meeting

The second of three planned rounds of negotiation sessions kicked off on Wednesday April 13, with UN Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura meeting with the HNC delegation in the afternoon. He briefed them on his visits to relevant capitals, and he reaffirmed the agenda for the Geneva talks that he will pursue with both sides will be “political transitional, governance and constitution.”

Head of the HNC Delegation Asaad al-Zoubi speaks to the press after meeting with De Mistura on 4/13/16

Head of the HNC Delegation Asaad al-Zoubi speaks to the press after meeting with De Mistura on 4/13/16

During a press conference following their meeting with De Mistura, Asaad al-Zoubi, head of the HNC delegation, said that during the meeting they had reiterated key concerns, including the decrease in humanitarian assistance, the release of detainees – which became a hot topic during the previous round – and the violations of the cessation of hostilities. They noted more than 21 incidents that they consider massacres perpetrated by the Syrian government in March alone. They also accused the Syrian government of using fake pretexts to avoid returning to the talks and called it “a terrorist regime.” The HNC wants to have a transitional governing body (TGB) with full executive powers, which will necessitate the departure of Bashar al-Assad and other emblematic figures of the regime. “Assad is the disease that has struck Syria,” Syria cannot heal without his departure, Al-Zoubi told the press. He also noted that the delegation was briefed on De Mistura’s travels to Moscow and Tehran and did not think that the results he shared with them were very positive.

  • CTF – Ceasefire Task Force. Created by the ISSG in its February “Munich Statement” in order to work towards a de-escalation of violence in Syria in support of the Intra-Syrian talks. (ISSG “Munich Statement,” Feb. 2016)
  • HTF – Humanitarian Task Force. Created by the ISSG in its February “Munich Statement” in order to work towards increased humanitarian access in Syria, in support of the Intra-Syrian talks. (ISSG “Munich Statement,” Feb. 2016)
  • HNC – High Negotiations Committee. The main opposition coalition in Geneva. Formed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in December 2015, the HNC brought together an unprecedented array of military and political opposition groups into one coherent body espousing a common set of principles. A smaller negotiating team of around 15 people representing was selected to represent the HNC at the Geneva talks. (HNC Formation Statement, Dec. 2015)
  • ISSG – International Syria Support Group. A group of 20 countries and international organization who came together in October 2015 in Vienna, Austria to work towards a path towards ending the Syrian conflict. The ISSG members are: the Arab League, China, Egypt, the EU, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and the United States. Russia and the U.S. are the ISSG Co-Chairs. (ISSG Statement, Nov. 2015)