Syria Peace Deadline ‘Out of the Question’ as Talks Falter Again

  • Negotiators in Geneva have no talks planned for all of July
  • ‘No one inside Syria actually believes any of these things’

One month before a “deadline” meant to lay out a political transition in Syria after five years of civil war, negotiators are at a stalemate and don’t have meetings scheduled for the entirety of July.

After Russia and the U.S. brokered a partial cease-fire in February, Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations envoy to Syria, told the Security Council this week that he had no dates set this month to help resolve a conflict that has killed more than 280,000 people and displaced millions. And, he added, there’s no point in talking without some assurance of progress.

“Short of a miracle, we are not going to have meaningful political talks this summer, and a political transition is effectively out of the question,” said Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “No one inside Syria actually believes any of these things that are going on in our parallel universe of deadlines and announcements.”

For a QuickTake on Syria’s civil war, click here.

Agreements have been elusive in a conflict embroiling Syrian, Russian, Iranian, U.S. and Kurdish forces, as well as designated terrorist groups including Islamic State and the Nusra Front, which is linked to al-Qaeda. The conflict has had a broad political impact after a surge in refugees heading toward Europe stoked criticism of the European Union’s “no borders” policy -- an issue in the campaign that led British voters last week to decide to exit the 28-nation bloc.

Aid Convoys

The last round of talks between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, mediators and a select group of opposition representatives broke up at the end of April. This week, the UN said that although aid convoys reached two more besieged areas in Syria, other cities had been blocked.

Even the partial cessation of hostilities brought about four months ago after pressure by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov has largely broken down, and the war has resumed in many areas.

“The cessation of hostilities has become close to a diplomatic fiction, quite frankly, if you think about the indiscriminate bombing of civilians that continues in Idlib, Aleppo and the suburbs of Damascus and elsewhere,” said Francois Delattre, France’s Ambassador to the UN. “Despite some improvement, the humanitarian access remains too little too late in so many respects.”

The Obama administration has offered to help Russia improve its targeting of terrorist groups in Syria if Russia will stop bombing civilians and opposition fighters who have signed on to a cease-fire and use its influence to force Assad to do the same, the Washington Post reported this week, citing sources it didn’t identify.

Asked to clarify the U.S. position on Thursday, State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. has “been clear about the danger posed by al-Qaeda in Syria to our own national security,” adding that he wouldn’t “speak to the details of any ongoing internal or diplomatic conversations.”

Assad’s ‘Solution’

Assad, in an interview this week with Australia’s SBS TV, said Western support for opposition forces, all of whom he calls terrorists, were making a resolution to the crisis impossible.

“There is an end in sight, and the solution is very clear,” Assad said. “It’s simple yet impossible. Without fighting terrorists, you cannot have any real solution.”

The biggest gap between the two sides meeting intermittently in Geneva is how to resolve the political transition in a country that has been ruled by the same family for almost five decades.

With Russia’s military strengthening Assad’s grip on the country, he has refused to present an alternative to opposition proposals for a transition that anticipates his resignation. Syrian authorities have indicated that they will accept only a limited role for the opposition in a national unity government, and that discussing the possibility of Assad stepping down is a “red line.”

The failure of current policies to force change in Syria prompted 51 U.S. diplomats last month to sign a “dissent memo” urging stronger U.S. action, such as airstrikes on Assad’s forces, by President Barack Obama. For a president who came to office vowing to end wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a new Middle East war may be anathema. U.S. action in Syria remains limited to efforts to defeat Islamic State forces there.

“It’s quite clear that Obama doesn’t want to leave a legacy of military intervention in Syria,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Yet, while officials hope peace talks will eventually succeed, he said, “Plan B is laying the groundwork for greater U.S. involvement under the next president.”