Syria peace talks include secret guest list and possibly theatrics

Syrian pro-government forces hold a position in Aleppo's eastern countryside. Talks aimed at ending Syria's war are to begin Friday in Geneva.
(George Ourfalian / AFP/Getty Images)

There will be no opening ceremony, the guest list remains secret, and strenuous efforts are in place to ensure that rival delegates are never in the same room.

Such are the curious conditions surrounding the Intra-Syrian Talks, the official designation of fresh peace negotiations aimed at ending Syria’s almost five-year war — an intractable conflict that has further destabilized the Middle East, morphed into a proxy struggle between regional and world powers and helped trigger a refugee crisis in Europe.

The long-anticipated talks are slated to begin Friday in this Swiss city, under the aegis of Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations’ special envoy for Syria.


The mood could hardly be called optimistic. No one expects a breakthrough. Many fear a collapse — a scenario that seemed possible late Thursday after a Saudi-backed opposition faction, the High Negotiations Committee, said it would not attend.

Riyad Hijab, coordinator of the High Negotiations Committee, accused De Mistura of “adopting a Russian and Iranian agenda” in comments to Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned news channel.

Moscow and Tehran, both major supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad, also back the Syrian peace talks.

In the run-up to the talks, De Mistura and others have hastened to downplay expectations.

“It’s going to be uphill,” De Mistura, a veteran Italian-Swedish diplomat, told reporters this week.

The negotiating sessions have been deemed “proximity talks,” meaning rival delegations — the Syrian government and the opposition contingent — will be in different rooms while U.N. facilitators engage in “a lot of shuttling,” De Mistura said.

Organizers are hoping for some semblance of decorum among adversaries who routinely label each other “terrorists,” “murderers” and sundry other epithets.

“You are not going to have a situation where people are sitting down at the table staring at each other or shouting at each other,” U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “You’re going to have to build some process here.”

The United States and Russia are major promoters of the talks, as both nations want the fighting to end, but they are on opposite sides of the politics behind the Syrian conflict.

The Obama administration, which once insisted that Assad must step down at the start of any political transition process, has grudgingly come around to the Russian position that Syrians should have the right to decide whether Assad stays or goes in U.N.-organized elections. When such balloting might take place in the war-ravaged nation remains unclear, but the U.N. says it will take at least 18 months, probably an optimistic projection.

Diplomats say the talks are initially likely to focus on incremental gains, such as instituting local cease-fires and facilitating deliveries of humanitarian goods to besieged areas in Syria.

Much of the pre-talks chatter has focused on a central question: Who will represent the fractured Syrian opposition? This has emerged as a key sticking point.

The opposition encompasses a broad range of Syrians, including hard-core Islamist fighters and secular and peaceful dissidents. Some opposition groups loath each other more than they despise Assad.

The U.N. has declined to identify which opposition figures have been invited to the talks, adding to an overriding sense of mystery.

De Mistura has warned that things might get a bit theatrical — “a lot of posturing … a lot of walk-outs and walk-ins” — but said he wouldn’t take the swagger and rhetoric too seriously.

“We should not be impressed, neither depressed, but it’s likely to happen,” De Mistura said of the anticipated shows of bravado. “The important thing is that we keep the momentum.”

In advance of the talks, the prospective makeup of the opposition delegation became yet another proxy battleground for the different countries supporting the warring sides in the conflict.

Saudi Arabia has put its weight behind the High Negotiations Committee, an umbrella organization of armed groups and political dissidents formed in December in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

The coalition includes a number of ultraconservative but powerful Islamist armed factions, including Ahrar al Sham, cofounded by a high Al Qaeda operative; and Jaysh al-Islam (Islam’s Army), which has been assailed for indiscriminately shelling government-controlled districts and allowing captive civilians to be paraded in cages as human shields against government bombardment.

Both factions have called for the establishment of an Islamic government after Assad’s departure and have engaged in sectarian rhetoric against the country’s Alawite population, a religious minority of which Assad is a member.

Their cadres also regularly fight alongside Al Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, which, along with Islamic State, the Al Qaeda breakaway group, has been excluded from the talks.

Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally, has insisted the High Negotiations Committee must be the sole representative of the rebels.

That scenario, however, has proved unacceptable to Russia, whose warplanes have helped turned the tide of the war in Assad’s favor since their deployment in Syria in September.

Last week, Moscow supplied a list of prospective opposition delegates deemed more palatable to Damascus but who are viewed with suspicion by the Saudi bloc.

Russia also lobbied to include Saleh Muslim, the head of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, the Syrian Kurdish group whose forces control large areas in the country’s northeast. The PYD’s militia has been one of the most effective forces against Islamic State and has worked closely with U.S. forces.

But the prospect of the PYD attending the Geneva talks has angered Turkey, which views the PYD as the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, which has waged a more than three-decade war against the Turkish state.

On Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that the PYD would not participate in the talks.

But even those invited had yet to confirm their attendance less than 24 hours before the talks were set to begin.

Delegates named by Russia also expressed their hesitation to attend.

“I am now on the way to Geneva, because my work is there, but I will decide later if I will be attending,” said Haytham Manna, co-leader of the Syrian Democratic Council, an opposition group, in a phone interview on Thursday from Lausanne.

Bulos is a special correspondent.

Twitter: @mcdneville