Is this another “first” for the Obama administration? The U.S.-proposed peace talks in Syria between the regime of President Bashar Assad and opposition groups are apparently over before they began.
While the UN is insisting on going forward with the talks, there’s only one small problem: only one side is attending.
Rebel groups are boycotting the talks and won’t negotiate until the Russians stop pulverizing rebel towns, killing civilians with impunity.
The first Syria peace talks for two years were a “complete failure” before they started on Friday, a Western diplomat said, after the United Nations announced it would press ahead with them despite an opposition boycott.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to find a way to persuade the opposition to show up for the talks in Geneva, a senior U.S. official said.
But opponents of President Bashar al-Assad said they were far more concerned with fending off a Russian-backed military onslaught, with hundreds of civilians reported to be fleeing as the Syrian army and allied militia tried to capture a suburb of Damascus and finish off rebels defending it.
U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura has invited the Syrian government and an opposition umbrella group to Geneva for “proximity talks”, in which they would meet in separate rooms.
But so far the main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) has refused to attend, insisting it wanted an end to air strikes and sieges of towns before talks can start. The boycott defies Washington, which has urged the opposition to take up the “historic opportunity” for the talks, without preconditions.
A U.N. statement said de Mistura would open the talks as scheduled on Friday by meeting the government delegation headed by Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations. Meetings with “other participants” would take place “subsequently” it said.
“Secretary Kerry has been in touch with all of his counterparts, including this morning with (Russian Foreign Minister) Sergei Lavrov … and with others, trying to find a way, a formula, in which we can urge the (opposition) delegation or some version of the delegation to show up here,” the senior U.S. official said.
The Syrian government delegation, headed by United Nations ambassador Bashar al Jaafari, arrived at the talks venue late in the afternoon but made no statement.
“It is a complete failure,” said a Western diplomat, on condition of anonymity, describing the event as a boon for Assad’s government.
“They are completely off the hook. With whom are they going to talk? If you want to engage in negotiations, you have to have a partner. It’s a wonderful occasion for the regime to show they are willing.”
Recall that at the end of the year, the State Department touted the Syrian peace talks as a “success.” Guess we can check that off the list.
Kerry has been trying to buffalo the opposition into talking to Assad for years. But the fact is, the U.S. doesn’t have that kind of leverage. The Gulf states have far more pull with the rebels, having been their quartermaster for the past 5 years.
Another reason for the failure is that there is no agenda that everyone can agree on. Assad sees no difference between the rebels and ISIS and neither do the Russians. Some of the rebel groups don’t recognize the authority of the opposition umbrella group to negotiate on their behalf and the Kurds — the most effective military force fighting both Assad and ISIS — weren’t invited at all.
Assad still thinks he can win a military victory with Russia’s help and given the progress of his forces recently, there may be some truth to that idea.