New York // The long-delayed Syrian peace talks are considered by many a futile exercise given the divisions between the opposition and the regime of president Bashar Al Assad, and their respective international supporters.
But some analysts say the talks could lead to modest yet significant achievements.
Mr Al Assad’s forces remains in control of important areas of the country while rebels are bogged down by infighting. This leaves neither side with much incentive to offer the necessary compromises for an inclusive political transition, the ultimate goal of the conference.
But while the meetings in Montreux and Geneva are only the beginning of a longer process, observers said the talks could still produce modest gains.
“If the rebel military commanders, who have the most legitimacy inside Syria, can’t bring down the Syrian air force, can’t stop Assad’s tanks and artillery that are pounding neighbourhoods to smithereens, there isn’t going to be any groundswell of support for continuing this war,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma.
Referring to the Syrian opposition, Mr Landis said that it could “gain more legitimacy” if it can “help to bring about a cessation of hostilities”.
US officials have said that that the initial talks will focus on establishing confidence-building measures, including ceasefires in certain cities so that humanitarian aid can reach starving and battered civilians.
But Syrian officials have laid down terms for such steps that the opposition say amount to surrender, such as withdrawing from areas where aid will be distributed and handing over heavy weapons.
“A strong US stance calling not for surrender but for true ceasefires that allow the provision of aid, would strengthen the opposition factions attending Geneva 2 in the eyes of fellow Syrians desperate for food and medical care,” wrote Andrew Tabler, a Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Others warned that shifting the focus too decisively away from the goal of the talks, a political transition in which Mr Al Assad steps down, would play into his hands.
“The terms of ceasefire in theory could be positive, but in actuality would take a lot to be implemented on the ground,” said Leila Hilal, the director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation think tank. “But at the same time, this is the most realistic point of agreement at this juncture.”
While both Russia and the United States agree that only a political solution will end the war, there is still a lack of agreement between them and regional powers on the framework of such a transition — crucially the status of Mr Al Assad.
“[A]lthough Assad’s representatives have gone to the negotiating table in Switzerland, it is not clear they are there to seek compromise. But others might,” wrote Yezid Sayigh, of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
Missing from the talks is Iran, Mr Al Assad’s main regional ally. The country was hastily disinvited by the UN following opposition threats to pull out of the talks if Tehran attended.
“I don’t think this means Iran is out of the equation,” said Ms Hilal. “Much more is going to happen behind closed doors than in public view and one can assume there are discussions taking place directly or indirectly with Iran.”
Updated: January 22, 2014 04:00 AM