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Peace talks add to cynicism over Syria

The Syria peace conference in Switzerland has seen diplomatic pomp and saturated media coverage but little substance. Phil Sands reports from Beirut
People walk past buildings damaged by what activists said was barrel bombs dropped by government forces in Aleppo's Dahret Awwad neighborhood on January 24, 2014. Hosam Katan/Reuters
People walk past buildings damaged by what activists said was barrel bombs dropped by government forces in Aleppo's Dahret Awwad neighborhood on January 24, 2014. Hosam Katan/Reuters

BEIRUT // It speaks volumes about how bad things are in Syria when the peace talks being held in Geneva are being praised as a step forward before the two sides have even managed to utter a word to each other.

The opposition and regime delegations sat in the same room in Geneva on Saturday for half an hour — a first since the uprising began in March 2011 — but did not speak to one another directly.

“It was not easy for us to sit with the delegation that represents the killers in Damascus but we did it for the sake of the Syrian people and for the sake of the Syrian children,” Anas Al Abdeh, who was among the coalition’s representatives, told the Associated Press.

Despite all the diplomatic pomp, an imposing venue and saturated media coverage, an unmistakable lack of substance has shrouded the Geneva 2 negotiations. Key figures representing the president, Bashar Al Assad, were not present in the initial meeting between the regime and opposition on Saturday, with the foreign minister, Walid Al Muallem, his deputy, Faisal Meqdad, and the presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban all staying outside.

In their place was Syria’s ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, a man whose job Mr Al Assad, in December 2011, revealingly described as a “game we play. It does mean you believe it”.

The opposition, too, was present in a less than fulsome way. The Syrian National Coalition is doing its best to behave with gravitas — a change from its usual squabbling — but still hardly represents the forces fighting Mr Al Assad on the ground.

The Islamic Front, Jabhat Al Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, not to mention major members of the Syrian National Coalition itself, have refused to take part in the talks, as has the National Coordination Committee, another opposition political bloc.

Which all leaves the Geneva talks looking suspiciously hollow. On one side, an opposition incapable of making decisions that it can enforce on the ground and, on the other, a regime that wants only to remain in power, whatever the cost.

There appears to have been no behind-the-scenes agreement between the regime’s arms dealers and money suppliers, Moscow and Tehran, and the opposition’s, Washington, Brussels, Riyadh and Doha.

Without a deal between them, there is little prospect of concrete steps being taken between the principals. A proxy war is being fought in Syria and the proxies alone cannot decide its outcome.

In an effort to score some kind of tangible result, UN envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi is looking to start with confidence building measures, such as access for humanitarian aid — something Mr Al Assad has repeatedly pledged and not delivered on.

But even if that is agreed to the pitfalls are numerous.

Previous ceasefires, including one brokered by the UN in April 2012, did not last, with the regime accusing the rebels of shooting first and vice versa — and that was with independent UN monitors on the ground.

The machine guns and artillery pieces hardly had time to cool. Things might be different now, but it’s hard to see exactly what.

At the heart of the matter still lies a knot that seems impossible to untie; Mr Al Assad will not leave power and mere mention of the presidency has been ruled a “red line” in these talks by his delegation.

Across the table, the opposition insists Mr Al Assad’s right to rule has been eroded irretrievably by his actions to break a peaceful uprising, which, in the face of a killing spree by his security forces, became a war that has killed 130,000 people.

psands@thenational.ae

Updated: January 25, 2014 04:00 AM

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