'No drama, no walkouts' and no progress in Syria peace talks
Mar. 25, 2016
GENEVA (AP) — As Syrian peace talks were adjourned in Geneva after 10 days, the U.N. mediator said he was encouraged that there was "no drama, no walkouts" — but, while a shaky truce has continued to hold across the war-torn country, there was also no visible sign of progress on a lasting settlement.
The ultimate goal for Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. envoy, is a plan for political transition in Syria.
In the wake of the Brussels bombings — claimed by Islamic State group, which has flourished in Syria's conflict — de Mistura sought to focus international attention on the next-step, saying that to defeat "terrorism, you have to find a political solution in Syria."
Although he succeeded in keeping Syrian government and opposition delegations from walking away from the indirect talks, de Mistura made little headway on getting them to sit around the same table or discuss the U.N. Security Council's envisaged political transition away from President Bashar Assad's government.
Still, the fact that the talks did not break off in recrimination as they did the last time — coupled with the relative calm on the ground — underline the limited options left for either side of the conflict.
Worn out by five years of fighting, with neither side able to defeat the other militarily, the warring sides appeared to acknowledge that they have no choice but to continue talking.
The U.S. and Russia, who back opposite sides of the war, are working together toward a political settlement for the civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced half the country's population.
The talks were adjourned on Thursday, with de Mistura setting April 9 as a "target date" for the resumption of the discussions. The top Syrian government envoy, Bashar Ja'afari, met with the envoy on the final day but didn't hold a news conference before leaving Geneva.
The night before, when asked by a reporter about whether the talks had made progress, Ja'afari said the two sides had worked through some unspecified issues that had existed when the talks began on March 14.
"For the first time, we were able to break the impasse, perhaps symbolically and perhaps a bit more in substance, but we have not yet started on substantial matters," he said, according to the Syrian state-run news agency SANA.
George Sabra, a senior member of the opposition's High Negotiations Committee, indicated Thursday that his side was committed to continuing talking.
"Progress in the talks is difficult, but we will fight this battle as we have fought the war," he told reporters.
As in previous talks, the sticking point remains the fate of President Assad. De Mistura calls political transition "the mother of all issues." Emboldened by a Russian military campaign that has turned the tide of the war in their favor, Damascus officials have said that any talk of removing Assad during a transitional period sought by the United Nations is "a red line."
But Russia's surprise withdrawal of most of its forces earlier this month signaled that Moscow expected the Damascus government to engage seriously in the peace talks.
There has been some improvement on the humanitarian front — including a trickle of aid convoys to besieged and hard-to-reach areas — though not nearly enough.
Western diplomats say the main achievement in recent weeks has been the U.S. and Russia-brokered "cessation of hostilities" that has led to a sharp drop-off in violence and eased the suffering of millions of Syrians still inside the country.
Yet, as the talks demonstrated, a more lasting solution is still a long way off.
Ja'afari, who is also Syria's U.N. ambassador, has stuck to the government line that fighting terrorism is a priority. He has derided the opposition's top negotiator Mohammed Alloush, calling him a "terrorist" and said he would not sit at the same table with him before Alloush apologizes for crimes committed "and also shaves his beard."
De Mistura's office provided a document comprised of 12 points — which he hopes could be common ground between the two sides to build on — such as affirming Syria's territorial integrity, reforming state institutions, rejecting terrorism, rebuilding the army and paving the way for the return of refugees. It will offer homework to the two sides in the interim, to plot strategy for the next round — and notably sidesteps the issue of Assad's future.
Alloush told The Associated Press that he gave de Mistura a "document of principles" that calls for forming a transitional governing body with full executive powers that would lead to real transfer of power. The government, in turn, has given de Mistura a document that underlines its vision for combating terrorism.
The IS-claimed carnage in Brussels on Tuesday offered a potent reminder of the extremist group's reach far beyond the battlefields of Syria. De Mistura told reporters Wednesday that fighting terrorism was a priority, but "the priority of the priorities" in defeating terrorism was finding a political solution in Syria.
Before the Brussels attacks, Assad's envoys played up the risks of terrorism. The bombings played into that narrative, diverting the spotlight from their perceived intransigence on the issue of political transition.
A lingering question is whether Assad's envoys will be instructed to give way on the issue during the two-week hiatus before talks resume — highly in doubt — and whether Russia can or will lean on the Syrian president to do so.
Assad's government plans parliamentary elections on April 13 in government-held areas, which the West largely discounts as an artificial attempt to show democracy in a country it doesn't full control. The opposition has called those elections a farce.
Associated Press Writers Bassam Hatoum in Geneva, Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Matthew Lee in Moscow contributed to this report.