BEIRUT: The Syrian regime and its opponents will head to a second round of talks next week in what diplomats and negotiators say will reflect a greater degree of agreement on major sticking points than has been publicly reflected.
Despite the very public acrimony shown at the last round of the so-called Geneva II talks, which wound up last Friday, and the failure to achieve any breakthrough on even a limited agreement to deliver humanitarian aid to part of the city of Homs, those close to the negotiations have expressed optimism that the second round, scheduled for Monday, may be more substantive.
The last round saw a marked failure in confidence-building measures, such as how to establish humanitarian corridors to send aid to government besieged areas of Old Homs.
The agreement collapsed when the regime delegation suggested that women and children could leave if they registered with the authorities – the opposition slammed the condition as an attempt to target rebels and evidence of the regime’s rejection of compromising on humanitarian issues.
The talks almost collapsed when they tackled more robust political issues, such as the June 2012 Geneva I communique’s stipulation that a Transitional Governing Body oversee new elections.
Both sides stuck to their guns on the issue of Bashar Assad’s presidency; the regime insisted his role was not up for discussion and said new circumstances on the ground meant terrorism was a bigger priority, while the opposition insisted his departure was a condition of talks and accused the regime of changing the terms of the debate.
Diplomats and U.N. officials say international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi has so far been pursuing confidence-building measures in tandem with political agreements, but that the second round will see him focus more closely on the Transitional Governing Body.
“There is more agreement, particularly between the Russian and the Americans than what is being said publicly, particularly on Geneva I,” said a senior U.N. official close to the talks.
“They will discuss confidence-building measures on one track, but they will also discuss the Transitional Governing Body on the other,” the official said. “But we will see a change of tactics.”
U.S. and Russian “experts” agreed in meetings Saturday to step up pressure on the rival delegations, according to diplomatic sources quoted by the Russian RIA news agency.
Western governments, according to Western diplomatic and U.N. sources, say they will exert more pressure on the humanitarian front.
“The West and the others have agreed to up the ante on the regime on the humanitarian front and try to embarrass Russia on this issue,” the U.N. official said.
Sensing the ground may have shifted after Russia blocked a U.K-tabled draft resolution condemning the Syrian government’s use of barrel bombs against civilian neighborhoods in Aleppo in the runup to Geneva II. Western diplomats say a new U.N. resolution on humanitarian issues is being discussed in New York to force the Russians to pressure the regime.
“Brahimi and his team know there is a difference between the political agenda and the confidence-building measures. It’s a difficult trade-off. It’s tempting to go for confidence-building measures because the time isn’t ripe yet for a political deal, [but] then you end up going down the rabbit holes of broken agreements and no real political solution,” said one Beirut-based Western diplomat.
“During Geneva the humanitarian crimes got worse on the ground; the starvation sieges got worse, the atrocious barrel bombing increased, we saw as usual, the regime is clearly not going to desist from their complete disregard for international law without pressure.”
Louay Safi, the opposition’s chief negotiator, told The Daily Star that despite seeing no sign of goodwill from the regime, his team was felt confident that it gained the upper hand ahead of the next round, by forcing the regime to work within the Geneva I framework.
The opposition will push for a referral to the Security Council under Chapter VII, which permits military action to ensure enforcement, on the basis of a failure to comply with the terms of the original communique, he said.
“The regime has not been cooperative at all. The only thing we can point out is that the regime is now stuck in the Geneva framework. They tried to find a way out of it by introducing new articles and conditions, but they have realized there is no way out,” Safi said.
“If the regime does decide to come back they have to talk about the details of the transitional government.”
During his flight home, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told reporters the opposition should have “no illusions” about the prerogatives of the TGB, saying it could not violate the constitution over the president’s role.
Some observers, noting it was Moallem’s first use of the term, considered the statement a sign of an opening. “The fact that he was very specific about the contradiction of presidential powers with the current constitution means that they are willing to discuss the possibility of the TGB supervising the amendment of the current constitution and even having a new constitution,” another senior U.N. official said.