x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Negotiating distrust at the UN talks in Geneva

As talks between opposition leaders and government representatives stall, Sakhr Al- Makhadhi describes the chance encounters that are happening behind-the-scenes

Protesters outside the UN headquarters in Geneva during the talks that began last week. Courtesy Sakhr Al-Makhadhi
Protesters outside the UN headquarters in Geneva during the talks that began last week. Courtesy Sakhr Al-Makhadhi

The first-ever meeting between government and opposition may be the reason that hundreds of journalists are camped out at the United Nations in Geneva. But it’s the unexpected encounters away from the negotiating table that are proving far more interesting than the dead-end talks.

“Answer me, Mr Minister,” shouted opposition activist Rami Jarrah. He was chasing Omran Al-Zoubi, Syria’s information minister, down a corridor, pointing a mobile phone camera in his face.

Many in the opposition accuse the government of colluding with religious extremists, and for the first time, a senior regime figure couldn’t run away from the questions.

“Why don’t you shell Isis? Why do you shell the people?” Jarrah asked, referring to The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis), a jihadist group active in Iraq and Syria that is reviled by the opposition. “Why don’t you shell the Isis headquarters in Raqqa? I’ll give you the Google coordinates.”

After an uncomfortable couple of minutes, Al-Zoubi was finally bundled out of the door by his aides. Jarrah also reportedly doorstepped senior Assad adviser Bouthaina Shaaban as she ate breakfast in her hotel. In Geneva, the hunter has become the hunted.

If these peace talks are the first time that activists have been able to confront their foes in the regime, then it’s also the first time that reporters from state TV have attended opposition press conferences.

“What [level of support] do you have among your people inside Syria?” a state radio reporter challenged Syrian Coalition spokesman Louay Safi. “Can you give guarantees to civilians kidnapped [by anti-Assad rebels]?”

“Thank you very much,” Safi replied. “These are very important questions.”

They’re not shy. Every evening at 5.30, journalists from Syrian state television and radio pack into Room III at the Palais des Nations for the evening press conferences. As soon as UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi finishes giving us his daily update, their hands shoot up. Their questions seem partly an attempt to filibuster and partly in the hope that their talking points will dominate the global news agenda.

In his first press conference after the talks began, Brahimi was bombarded with polemics by pro-regime journalists. “Please, please, there is no point in asking such questions,” he replied, exasperated at another question about Saudi and Turkish terrorism in Syria.

After a 20-minute Q&A, Brahimi took his last question. “Another Syrian,” he said under his breath when he heard the journalist’s accent. “Am I going to feel guilty when I tell you that I work for Syrian National Television?” the journalist replied. The room collapsed into laughter.

State media have provided some of the few laughs at these seemingly hopeless talks punctuated by press conferences where the UN envoy emerges to tell us that he has nothing to tell us.

The talks are taking place behind closed doors. That means we spend all day waiting for a few crumbs to be thrown to us during press statements on the lawn in front of this grand building surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Even those brief comments dried up after Brahimi got angry at the leaks and told both delegations to keep the private negotiations private.

So for journalists covering these first face-to-face negotiations between the Syrian regime and the opposition at the UN in Geneva, the rumour mill is often more enlightening than the official statements.

It was just hours after the official start of the talks. Two reporters from Syrian state media entered Room III at the Palais and mentioned that Walid Al-Mouallem, the foreign minister, had decided to quit the talks unless the two sides started face-to-face negotiations. No official announcement, just chatter among reporters (although it’s likely that the regime knew what it was doing by leaking the information). We had stumbled across an exclusive. Within minutes, it was the top story on news channels around the world.

The best stories come from overheard conversations and chance encounters in the corridors. “We’re trying to convince them to defect,” announced an opposition spokesman on day two as he passed us on the first floor. “Starting with [deputy foreign minister] Faisal Mekdad. I’ve launched a campaign on Twitter. He can move to Arizona.”

When the two sides aren’t running away from the tough questions, or feeding us with spin and leaks, these bitter enemies sit around a U-shaped table somewhere in this building. These may be called face-to-face talks, but the opposition delegation and the senior regime figures can’t bear to talk to each other. Instead, like petulant children, they direct their comments at Brahimi, who sits between them, passing messages across the table.

The atmosphere in that room is described as frosty. The rival politicians don’t even shake hands or greet each other when they arrive. Sometimes they don’t even bother to turn up. The heads of the two delegations – Ahmad Jarba, the president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, and Walid Al-Mouallem, Syria’s foreign minister – have been doing an awkward dance. When Jarba decided not to attend the negotiations, his opposite number refused to enter the room.

No one is under any illusion that these talks will end the war. For the journalists covering this depressing circus, the slow progress at the negotiating table isn’t the point anymore. It’s what’s going on in the UN corridors and hotel lobbies that has turned out to be the real story in Geneva.

Sakhr Al-Makhadhi is a regular contributor to BBC TV and radio, Sky News, Channel 4 News and Al Jazeera English. He edits J magazine and writes for The National and The Guardian.