x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Syria’s opposition comes out of talks with a plus

They may not have won any concessions from Bashar Al Assad, but the Syrian opposition negotiators did manage to put his regime on the defensive.

Smoke billows from a regim airstrike in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Friday. Nearly 1,900 people have been killed in Syria while peace talks were held in Switzerland from January 22, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Medo Halab / AFP
Smoke billows from a regim airstrike in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Friday. Nearly 1,900 people have been killed in Syria while peace talks were held in Switzerland from January 22, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Medo Halab / AFP

Beirut // With zero expectation of real success, the conclusion yesterday of Syria peace talks with nothing agreed upon came as no surprise.

But it is not yet clear if that lack of agreement between the regime and opposition correlates to complete a lack of progress on all fronts.

On the most important level of making concrete steps to halt a terrible conflict, nothing has changed after a week of meetings in the dull tranquility of Geneva.

Indeed, the horror and destruction of the regime’s barrel bombing campaign, seen in Aleppo over the past month, was shifted yesterday to Daraya, on the southern edge of Damascus, according to activists.

Hardly a reason to feel positive, or a sign President Bashar Al Assad is in a mood to negotiate anything other than a complete surrender of those opposed to his family’s continued rule.

On top of that, there have been no sustained advances on the humanitarian aid front.

It remains a source of irony to Syrians, particularly those stranded in the combat zone, that, instead of seeking to directly address the larger political schema, the international community has accepted that civilian access to food, shelter and medicine is a legitimate bargaining chip.

On the ground, the talks have yet to make an impact then.

But something more subtle might have changed in Geneva. Less important than concrete steps to be sure but, given the ferocity and polarised nature of the conflict, and the fracturing of Syrian society, it is something that might constitute a hint of progress.

Syria’s opposition, much maligned – and justly so – over the past three years, managed to comport itself as a group of serious, sober-minded people trying to work in the collective interests of their country.

Ranged against them, the regime delegation looked petulant, dictatorial and distinctly unsettled to be questioned about policies and actions, not only by their political opponents but by a new generation of Syrian reporters who travelled to Switzerland for the occasion.

In response to legitimate questions, the regime’s top representatives ranted and raged that Bashar Al Assad would always rule Syria. His father and predecessor as president, Hafez Al Assad, is known by supporters as the “leader for eternity”. They are still willing that to be true.

Inside Syria, of course, no reporter would dare ask searching questions of any official, let alone demur over their right to rule, knowing a visit from the feared secret police would result.

In Geneva, the regime delegation was not protected by the heavy hand of fear and in the cold light of European freedoms, they were revealed for what they, in fact, are: an unaccountable administration that has never had to justify a single action to any of its ordinary citizens.

The week of talks was perhaps another step in the process of Syria learning that the rulers work for the ruled, not the other way around.

A second set of talks has been provisionally scheduled to start on February 10, also in Geneva. The opposition, surprised by its own solid performance, quickly agreed to attend. Composure ruffled, the regime delegation has to ask Mr Al Assad if he is prepared to again sit down and be treated as an equal with his opponents, a misery that must sting after more than four decades of family rule.

As long as no concrete progress towards a political solution is made, he will surely be prepared to swallow that bitter pill to prolong his reign.

But eternity of rule seems even more unlikely post-Geneva than it did before.

psands@thenational.ae