x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Damascus residents reflect on Geneva 2 peace talks

With little progress made during peace talks in Switzerland between the Syrian regime and opposition, Damascus residents see no end in sight for the conflict.

A man pushes a bicycle as he makes his way through rubble in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta last week. Ammar Al Erbeeni / Reuters
A man pushes a bicycle as he makes his way through rubble in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta last week. Ammar Al Erbeeni / Reuters

BEIRUT // For the past week, residents of Damascus have watched the latest chapter in the struggle for Syria unfold 3,000 kilometres away, as regime officials and the opposition engaged in a round of diplomatic arm wrestling in Geneva.

That no firm decisions were made, let alone any deal struck to end a war that has killed more than 130,000 people, came as no surprise to the Syrian capital.

Supporters of the president, Bashar Al Assad, as well as those wanting to see him removed from office, expected no concrete outcome from the first round of talks.

And there was no sign that the opening of dialogue between the regime and its opponents, a first during the Assad dynasty’s more than 40-year reign, had changed the opinions of those on either side of Syria’s divide.

In Geneva, both the regime delegation and the opposition Syrian National Coalition claimed to have embarrassed and outmanoeuvred the other. Those positions were echoed by their respective supporters in Damascus.

“The opposition delegation is a bunch of criminals and agents of America and Saudi Arabia,” said Abu Mazen, 54, a government employee living in the Mezzeh 86 district.

He said the regime’s delegation to the talks, led by the foreign minister, Walid Al Moallem, put in a winning performance, disrupting Washington’s plans to overthrow Syria’s rulers, a narrative pushed throughout the week by state-run media.

“Our delegation was strong and I was so happy to watch our foreign minister give a long, powerful speech at the start of the conference, stressing the crimes of terrorists and the need to stop terrorism.”

A short distance away, in Damascus’ Barzeh neighbourhood, Rami, 33, a computer technician, and regime opponent, said he had been against the opposition even taking part in the talks.

But, after watching the factions’ speeches, he said the Syrian National Coalition’s performance had come as a pleasant surprise.

“I actually felt the opposition won the political conversations and sounded logical, while the regime looked like angry children, shouting because they were not getting their own way.”

Rami also said the opposition had shown a shrewd tactical sense, with more moderate rebel forces attacking the Islamic State of Iraqi and the Levant (Isil), a powerful Al Qeada-linked group, in the run up to the talks.

“Assad wants to say that he is fighting terrorism but it became clear before Geneva that the only people actually fighting against Al Qaeda on they ground in Syria are the rebels, not the regime forces.”

Yet Abu Mazen said it was the regime’s tactics that were succeeding.

A series of localised ceasefires agreed between the regime and rebels struck in the weeks before Geneva had sent a message that the opposition coalition had no role to play in ending the fighting, and that the situation could be solved inside Syria, away from Swiss conference halls, he said.

On that basis, Abu Mazen said the regime delegation’s goal was to stop any decisions being made in Geneva, and to draw out talks for as long as possible.

“Our delegation will engage the opposition in the smallest details and it will take years of negotiations,” he said. “In that time we will defeat the terrorists. There can be no political solution under terrorist attack.”

The prospect of talks dragging on without making any headway was underlined by a political analyst in Damascus.

“It is all about time for the regime, they didn’t want to go to the talks but Russian pressure meant they had no choice and, as they have seen with the Israel and Palestine peace process, these things can last for decades so they are willing to play that game,” he said.

The only real positive to come out of the talks, the analyst said, was the talks themselves.

“The regime always insisted it would never sit with the ‘Doha Coalition’ [its derisive name for the coalition] but no we have seen them doing just that. “Both sides are slowly learning they cannot win on the battle field and that means a political solution will come in the end.”