Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor
UN-sponsored talks in Geneva designed to end the Syrian civil war have collapsed, with a deflated special envoy Staffan de Mistura admitting “a golden big opportunity” had been missed.
He largely blamed the Syria government delegation for setting preconditions on holding direct talks with the opposition, saying it would be difficult for any future talks sponsor to make progress “if the government is not willing to meet anyone who has a different opinion”.
He said the Syrian government delegation had refused to discuss two of the major potential agenda items – a constitutional process and presidential elections – insisting instead it would only discuss terrorism.
The end of talks on Thursday leaves the Geneva process – now in its eighth round of talks – perilously shorn of credibility.
De Mistura said he would report the outcome of the talks to the UN Security Council next week and would not stop trying.
He said without pressure from President Bashar al-Assad’s sponsors Russia, or an implausible change on the battlefield, Assad felt no need to negotiate with a divided, and under-resourced opposition.
As the Syrian government delegation resolutely refused to engage in Geneva, de Mistura had pleaded with the Russians to put more pressure on the government negotiators to start talks, but the Syrian government lead negotiator Bashar Ja’afari said it was not possible to talk to the opposition.
He said a statement issued by a revamped opposition delegation team in Riyadh ahead of the talks demanded a political transition in which Assad did not participate. He said he would not negotiate under blackmail.
De Mistura countered that apart from one mistaken statement by the opposition at Geneva, it had not set preconditions, and its call for Assad to stand aside ahead of UN supervised presidential elections was merely an expression of an opinion, and not a precondition.
At one point Ja’afari accused de Mistura of misleading him by by putting the Syrian government delegation in a room adjacent to the opposition.
The collapse of the talks leaves the political initiative to secure a political settlement now resting largely with President Vladimir Putin who has said he will convene a Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in the Black Sea resort of Sochi probably in February.
The Syrian government will attend any Putin-sponsored talks especially if the still unknown composition of the congress dilutes the opposition attending the talks.
In a bid to make itself a viable negotiating partner for the Syrian government, the opposition ahead of the talks had broadened its composition and diluted its platform.
The Trump administration has taken little interest in a long term political settlement in Syria, with different members of the government giving different views on whether Assad can remain in office, or for how long.
The UK remains committed to Assad’s removal on the basis that no sustainable political settlement or return of refugees is possible so long as he remains in power.
The Sochi conference also faces difficulties since one of the co-sponsors, Turkey, has insisted it will not allow Syrian Kurds to attend the dialogue on the basis that they have links with Turkish Kurdish group, the PKK.