Geneva talks start of uphill task to end Syrian war

United Nations mediators are downplaying chances of achieving any immediate diplomatic breakthrough to end Syria's civil war, as parties to the conflict sit down for negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland, today.

And justifiably so, for until the very last moment, the biggest stumbling block was not over what an eventual peace deal should include, but over mundane questions such as just how many of Syria's hundred-odd opposition movements and militias should be invited to the negotiating table.

Still, the Geneva talks are an indication that key members of the UN Security Council, particularly the United States and Russia, are making some progress in pushing for an end to a war which has claimed the lives of at least a quarter of a million Syrians and displaced a further 11 million.

Mr Staffan de Mistura, the UN's mediator on Syria, is taking a low-key approach. The Geneva talks today are not hailed as "historic" - instead, they are presented as just the start of a process which may take months, and during which the various parties inside Syria may not even look at one another in the face. They are expected to be in adjacent negotiating rooms, with Mr de Mistura shuttling between them.

The permanent members of the UN Security Council are also wisely staying out of the limelight: US Secretary of State John Kerry spent most of the week in Asia, although he was frequently on the phone to his Russian and European counterparts.

Despite the mind-boggling complexity of the war, the outlines of a Syrian deal are fairly clear. Everyone agrees that a ceasefire in Syria should be accompanied by the appointment of a transition government and the holding of immediate elections.

There is also a broad agreement that the end of the war will require massive international reconstruction aid, and will have to entail the departure of current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Neither Iran nor Russia, Mr Assad's chief patrons, is necessarily wedded to him.

The problem for Mr de Mistura is that there is no consensus on which steps should be undertaken first. The Assad government regards all the militias opposing it as "terrorists" and demands their disarmament before elections take place; the rebels want President Assad out as a precondition to any deal. And neither Russia nor Iran is willing to sacrifice Mr Assad until they get a guarantee that their long-term strategic interests will be safeguarded.

Then, there are Syria's neighbours. Turkey is adamant that Syria's Kurds should not be part of the peace process, mainly because that could encourage a Kurdish separatist movement within Turkey. And Saudi Arabia touts its own people as Syria's future leaders: Most Arab governments now support Mr Mohammed Alloush, the leader of the powerful, Saudi-backed group Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), as the head of the united Syrian opposition, to the fury of Russia which dismisses him as a "terrorist".

Navigating all these obstacles won't be easy for Mr de Mistura. Still, his task is not entirely hopeless. For the US now regards the Syrian war as a diversion from the real fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which threatens the stability of the entire Middle East.

Russia, meanwhile, is keen to limit its military involvement in Syria, if only to save money as the Russian economy nosedives in response to low oil prices. And Iran, which has just emerged from international isolation, may also be looking for a way out of the conflict.

Finally, the Europeans are desperate to end the Syrian war in the hope that this will stop the flow of refugees into Europe. Britain will be hosting a donors' conference on Syria next week, at which nations will be asked to pledge funds for the country's refugees and eventual reconstruction.

Ultimately, however, UN negotiators know that everything will depend on whether an international force can be put together to police any deal which may be reached. And that cannot just be a peacekeeping force- it will have to be a powerful force capable of disarming militias and ensuring elections, all daunting tasks.

So, having spent years refusing to put "boots on the ground" in Syria, regional governments and permanent members of the UN Security Council will have to do precisely that if Syria is ever to stand a chance of regaining its peace.

This article was first published on Jan 29, 2016.
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