Syrian negotiations with Geneva falls apart again

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By georgeskef

Geneva – As the international spotlight continues to focus on the war in Ukraine and Syria, the prospects of a solution to the conflict are greater than ever. However, talks between the government and opposition failed to resolve their differences once more. On Friday, the United Nations hosted the latest attempt at drafting a new Syrian constitution. However, talks failed to make significant progress and ended without any hope of a revival in the slow peace process.

The 2019 constitution committee was created by the regime, opposition and members of civil society. It is charged with finding common ground on issues such as state identity, governance and the structure and functions of public authorities. Opposition members blamed the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad for the latest round’s failure.

Al Jazeera was told by a spokesperson for Hadi Al-Bahra (the head of the opposition), that they were not satisfied with the government’s engagement. “There has been no meaningful progression.”

The constitutional committee has yet to decide whether to amend or create a new constitution. However, analysts claim that the long-running debate over the constitution is hindering progress on other important tracks, and jeopardizing the entire peace process. Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst at International Crisis Group, stated that the constitutional committee had been using political capital and bandwidth in a way that is not proportional to its value.

“The committee was not intended to be an end in itself, but a gateway to other political tracks. Khalifa said that it had been the only avenue for intra-Syrian negotiations.

While the main focus has been on the constitution, other issues like violence and security and free and fair elections and the creation a transitional executive were ignored. There is no indication that polarizing topics such as al-Assad’s role and the form and structure of government in a future Syria are any closer to being addressed.

Andrej Kortunov (Director General of Russian International Affairs Council), stated that there are no signs that the gap between Damascus’s opposition and its leaders is narrowing. “It is still important to keep Geneva track open and active, as much as possible. “The time for the constitutional process is coming sooner than expected.”

The committee’s credibility has been eroded by the Assad government’s inaction, divisions within its opposition, and the lack of key stakeholders, de-facto authorities, at the Geneva table.

“The UN proposes a traditional two-side format of talks between government and opposition. This does not reflect the complexity of the ground. Khalifa said that they should focus on both representation and issues.

The military conflict on the ground in Syria has been frozen for the past two decades, dividing it into four main entities. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has regained more than 70% of Syria’s territory. On the other, there is the opposition to the regime. They include the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeast, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib, and Turkish-backed rebels who control pockets of territory bordering Syria’s northwest border with Turkey.

HTS and the SDF were both listed as terrorists by UN. Turkey considers the SDF a terrorist organization for its links with the PKK.

Is Assad still in the Arab fold

The Syrian regime seems to think that time is on their side. 11 years after the conflict began, regime change in Syria is still elusive. Some Arab leaders are beginning to accept the possibility of normalizing ties with al Assad.

Al-Assad flew last week to the United Arab Emirates, becoming the first Arab country in 2018 to reopen its Embassy in Damascus.

After his brutal suppression of civil protests, 2011, many Arab countries decided that they would support the opposition. They expelled Syria from Arab League and treated its president as a traitor. The government has now taken control of most of the country and the opposition is weaker due to internal fighting, so Arab countries are reconsidering their position.

Al-Assad’s return to the Arab League may not be appropriate, and Arab leaders may still be afraid of the US’s position on Syria. However, al-Assad’s visit to the Gulf is not a good sign for the opposition.

Al Jazeera was told by an opposition member of its constitutional committee that “we are neither surprised nor pleased, but the UAE does not seem to be a country we would expect any endorsement for democratic efforts and principles.”

Humanitarian fears

Russia’s military support was a major reason that al-Assad was able survive in Syria. The war in Ukraine has not affected Moscow’s ability to keep its military and political presence there. The situation could change if Ukraine invades for a longer period of time. Kortunov stated that Russia may need to optimize its resources and encourage Assad to seek out other support partners.

Fears that Moscow might be a spoiler during the next round Syria negotiations have also been raised by the war in Ukraine and the increased animosity between Russia, the West and Russia. These negotiations will focus on Syria’s border crossings and are scheduled to take place in July.

Khalifa stated that Russia may attempt to close down the only border crossing for humanitarian assistance, which would have a devastating impact on millions of Syrians.

Around a thousand UN trucks carrying food and medicine cross the Bab al-Hawa border between Turkey and Syria each month. This crossing represents the only hope for the three million Syrians living in Idlib, which is still outside Damascus.

An already grave humanitarian crisis could be made worse by any obstruction to the flow of aid. According to UN estimates, 90% of Syrians are living in poverty. 12 million people are food insecure and 14.6 million require humanitarian assistance.

Paulo Pinheiro (chair of the UN’s Syria Commission of Inquiry) stated that “the population is suffering crushing poverty.” “[Syrians] find themselves caught between warring parties, and are everywhere being repressed or exploited by armed actors.”

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