Chances of new constitutional settlement for Syria seem remote as delegates in Geneva wrangle over procedure

The Syrian opponent has vented its annoyance at the Assad regime delegation at the Geneva peace talks, accusing its leaders of procrastinate and avoiding any substantive dialogue in favour of arguing about procedures.

The anger suggests the success of the talks may turn on the willingness of Russia to put pressure on Syrias president, Bashar al-Assad, to stop the talks ending in an early stalemate.

The US secretary of state, John Kerry, is travelling to Moscow this week to gauge the extent to which the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is willing, following his amaze decision last week to undertake a partial military withdrawal, to exert his undoubted leverage over the Assad regime.

On Sunday, Mohammed Alloush, the leader of the Syrian opposition delegation, said the government was so far refusing to engage in detailed trade negotiations and instead continuing to starve Syrians into submission.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy to Syria, on Friday tried to put the best gloss on the first week of talks, saying the good news was that the system of proximity talks had contributed to the talks continuing with no walk-outs , no excessive rhetoric and no breakdowns.

On the three interlinked confidence-building issues of humanitarian access, release of political detainees and the cessation of hostilities, progress is slow, diplomats acknowledge, and on the substantive issue of a political transition, De Mistura admitted there were big distances between the two sides. He said his role was to search for grey areas that could allow him to merge the positions the two sides.

The danger for De Mistura is that the talks lose momentum, and external events such as a slowdown in the delivery of aid to besieged regions will start to induce the Syrian opposition delegation, the High Negotiating Committee, lose faith. The HNC, formed in Riyadh last year under Saudi sponsorship, came to Geneva confident that the talks could succeed. It has reiterated its faith in De Mistura, but is clearly exasperated by the government refusal to discuss anything but common principles.

What are the issues?

Humanitarian access

The UN complained last week that it had still not been given permits by the government to access six besieged townships, including Douma, Harasta and Darayya. Aid has reached 260,000 besieged regions, but the UN wants to access a total of 1.1 m people by the end of April. Daraya, a rebel-held Damascus suburb, has received no food, water or medication since December 2013. Plans to run airdrops of aid in Deir ez-Zor have been stuck given the lack of sufficiently strong parachutes.

In addition, medical furnishes and experts are still being blocked from many townships. The UN Humanitarian coordinator, Jan Egeland, said at a briefing last week: I do not know why they will not give permission. It is a violation of international law to prevent us from going.

He also briefed that fewer than half of Syrian children have been vaccinated for measles or polio, something he described as a prescription for an epidemic amongst millions. A plan has been submitted to the Syrian government for this mass vaccination programme.

More positively, since the ceasefire the UN has reached 150,000 people in besieged areas and 110,000 in the so-called hard-to-reach areas. A escort including the UN, the International Red Cross( ICRC) and Syrian Red Crescent was distributing aid in four regions – Madaya, Zabadani, Fua and Kefraya late last week.

Cessation of resentments

Given the complexity of the 27 February ceasefire, the number of performers and the exclusion of Islamic State and al-Nusra Front, the cessation, according to De Mistura, has led to a surprising soothe, even if he will not yet describe this as a trend. The joint US-Russian taskforce on the ceasefire chaired by a German official, Volker Perthes, contribute to greater military coordination. The number of ceasefire violates is falling by the day.

America, and to a lesser extent, Russia are still carrying out bombing operations against Islamic State and al-Nusra Front. Russia for instance has been hitting Isis in eastern Syria around Palmyra, operating as many as 20 sorties a day.

There are some tentative signs that the ceasefire is putting al-Nusra Front under pressure both from western military but also from civilians willing to demonstrate in support of the original Syrian revolution.


The High Negotiating Committee has so far fruitlessly been raising the issue of political detainees, and trying to get the matter lifted to the same level of importance as humanitarian access. In a bid to hammer home the point, the opposition put one across an stomach-churning exhibition of some of the Caesar photos the photographs of hundreds of detainees held in Syrian jails smuggled out Syria in 2013. The event was attended by many western envoys in a show of solidarity.

The HNC asserts as many as 50 prisoners are being executed a week, although the basis for this assertion is unclear.

In response the UN formally concurred the issue of detainees must be addressed. Egeland said: There are a lot of innocent civilians; they should be released. Nothing could be more important than we get out some groups, particularly the weak, the sick and women and children.

There are no verifiable statistics on the number of political prisoners in Syria, but in the previous abortive Geneva peace talks in 2014, the opposition created a listing of 47, 000 detainees, rejected as bogus by the government.

The substantive talks

The chief purpose of the talks at least from the UNs point of view is to form a transitional governing body within six months with full executive powers tasked with depicting up a constitution and that will allow presidential and parliamentary elections in 18 months. De Mistura has said he would like the transitional body established within a six-month timeframe, but admitted, in the wake of his talks with the governmental forces, that progress was slow.

Basma Kodami, one of the many Syrian women in the HNC delegation, says her side has presented a memo on their vision of a transitional period, adding: We are keen to avoid a process that does not deliver.

De Mistura says he is impressed by the depth of the HNCs preparations, but hinted strongly the Syrian government was being less cooperative, saying: I hope will get the same in-depth clarity from the governmental forces. So far it has been more on the formal side. Time is going by, we want to go deeply.

The Syrian delegation led by Syrias ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, insists says he is engaging. He says he has submitted its own eight-point fundamental elements newspaper that would allow for a serious intra-Syrian political dialogue without any foreign intervention and without preconditions.

But western envoys dread this phraseology, used in a terse statement on Friday, could mean Assad rejects the UN format as the way to solve Syrias divisions. Similarly, his opposition to preconditions means that he is not in his view required to say at the outset of the talks he will stand down at the end of the transition process.

The challenges facing De Mistura

On the transitional governing body, it could be interpreted that De Mistura who wants to wrap up the first round of talks by Thursday has induced no progression. In a reference to the Syrian governments obsession with process, Kodami alerted someone at some point is going to have say there is no partner out there.

De Misturas other difficulty is that the talks are not simply between the HNC and the government. He has had to invite the Moscow-Cairo group of pro-Russian and regime-tolerated opposition members and also another delegation called the Hmeimim group named after Russias Syria airbase and fiercely critical of the HNC.

The aim seems to be to undermine the legitimacy of the HNC as the primary opposition negotiating body. Although these other groups have their internal changes , none of them call for Assads removal.

To complicate matters further De Mistura is also facing calls to invite the main Syrian Kurdish party, the PYD, to the talks, something to which Turkey objects, especially after the Kurdish groups in northern Syria this week united in a declaration for an an autonomous self-administered region inside Syria.

The Syrian Kurds effectively control a 250 -mile area along the Syrian Turkish border from the Euphrates river to the frontier with Iraq. Washington, Turkey the UK and the HNC all oppose a federal solution for Syria, even if some recognise that diffusion of power from Damascus may be necessary at the end of the talks.

But the chances of a new constitutional settlement for Syria at present seem small as the two sides in Geneva wrangle over procedure. And if Putin chooses he does not want to exercising his undoubted leverage over Assad, the optimism that marked the talks at the beginning of last week will promptly fade.

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