As Assad Gains Ground, New Syria Talks Offer Little Hope of Peace
Ahead of Erdogan’s visit to Washington, insiders are pessimistic that the Geneva talks will lead to a political solution for Syria.
While senior diplomats believe the latest round of U.N.-sponsored Syria peace talks is a promising though limited step forward, experts and insiders say there is little reason to believe a newly formed constitutional committee that met in Geneva this month will yield concrete results.
After more than eight years of war, prospects for reaching a political solution in Syria through the Geneva talks appear dim. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has made it clear that his government is not bound by any agreements a pro-Damascus delegation may strike at the U.N.-brokered talks in Geneva, a constitutional committee engineered by Moscow; meanwhile the Turkish-backed opposition continues to make unrealistic demands for a political transition that would lead to Assad’s removal.
“The problem is neither side is serious about negotiations. The regime is not going to change because of this pressure—they are just going to wait, even if it means waiting years until [U.S. President Donald] Trump leaves office,” one U.S. State Department official said. On the other side: “The opposition has always demanded, essentially, the death of the regime, which also isn’t a serious negotiating position.”
But as discussions wrapped up last Friday, Geir Pedersen, the United Nations envoy for Syria, said the talks went better than expected, adding that the 150 delegates from the Syrian government, opposition, and civil society who represent the newly formed Syrian Constitutional Committee planned to reconvene for another round on Nov. 25. The hope is that the Geneva talks will serve as a door opener for more meaningful dialogue between the major players—Assad, Russia, Turkey and the United States—or at least as a vehicle by which the West can sign off on any solution reached by the regional powers.
The Constitutional Committee is widely viewed as “the most promising however limited step forward on Syria,” a senior U.S. government official told Foreign Policy.
“Having a process is still seen as valuable—by some, just for the sake of having a process, and by others, because they hope it can become a vehicle for background understandings that are basically made between non-Syrians,” said Aron Lund, a fellow with the Century Foundation.
The ongoing conflict is expected to come up during a much-anticipated meeting this week in Washington between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But experts and insiders say there is no clear path to a real political solution—and Assad has no incentive to compromise. The Syrian president has all but won the war militarily with the help of his Russian backers. Syria’s last rebel stronghold, in the northwestern province of Idlib, has been devastated by Russian and Syrian airstrikes and is now primarily controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an extremist group linked to al Qaeda. Meanwhile, the Syrian Kurdish militias, which maintain control of a large chunk of resource-rich land in the northeastern part of the country and argue they are the only indigenous party with any serious leverage over Assad, have been excluded from the Geneva talks due to a Turkish veto.
Assad’s negotiating hand has only been strengthened since Trump withdrew U.S. troops from Syria’s border with Turkey in early October, paving the way for a bloody attack on the Kurds. In the absence of U.S. support on the ground, the Kurds were forced to cut a deal with Assad for protection from the Turkish attack, prompting Russian and Syrian regime troops to flow into northeastern Syria for the first time in years. Russian and Turkish troops began joint patrols along a 6-mile-deep stretch of border to the west and east of the Turkish incursion under an Oct. 22 deal inked by Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
European powers—whose money will be vital if cash-strapped Damascus ever hopes to rebuild the country when the war ends—continue to condition any financial support on evidence of a commitment to a real political transition that would weaken Assad’s grip on power. But they wield a shrinking measure of influence over the shape of Syria’s future, a development that has been furthered by Washington’s wobbly military commitment in the region.
“I just see no reason why the Assad regime would change their behavior from their past processes through the Geneva processes, [particularly when they are] moving into parts of northern and eastern Syria without firing a bullet,” said Dana Stroul, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “What incentive do they have?”
The history of the Geneva process has been one of compromise and ever diminishing expectations.
Back in the summer of 2012, the United States and Russia negotiated the landmark Geneva Communiqué, in the presence of former U.N. Secretary-General and then-Syria envoy Kofi Annan. The Communiqué outlined a road map for a political transition in Syria, presumably ending the reign of the Assad dynasty.
The Communiqué envisioned the creation of a transitional government, drawn from the Syrian government and the opposition, with “full executive powers.” This transitional government was to be charged with reviewing the constitution and preparing the grounds for free and fair elections. However, the Communiqué specified that the new transitional governing body would be formed by the “mutual consent” of the parties, ultimately giving Assad a veto. As such, and even though Assad was at the time facing the real threat of military defeat, the agreement never took hold through subsequent rounds of negotiations between 2014 and today.
Russia’s entry into the war in September 2015 emboldened Assad, who has largely refused to negotiate any internal reform under UN auspices, let alone yield power to a transitional government. Instead, the Syrian government has promoted its own plan that subordinates a constitutional process and elections to its own control, with the aim of solidifying his grip on power.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama’s State Department, led by then-Secretary of State John Kerry, had some degree of success rallying the opposition groups into a more cohesive body. In December 2015, during a conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Syrian groups, including previously unrepresented opposition militias, formed the High Negotiations Committee, led by former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab and which has since been expanded and renamed the Syrian Negotiation Commission, Syria’s main opposition bloc.
But Assad has never regarded the splintered opposition as a legitimate negotiating power, U.S. and Syrian sources said. Since the Geneva talks began, each meeting essentially unfolded the same way. The sources described how during a meeting 2014 the regime refused to sit facing opposition representatives, so the delegates ended up seated in an L shape, with one table perpendicular to the other.
“All the regime did was sit there and read articles about the infiltration of the opposition on the ground by al Qaeda and other terrorist groups,” the first State Department official said.
“None of these meetings were serious,” said one Syrian analyst close to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council. “They spend the meetings making fun of each other.”
In early 2017, Russia launched a parallel peace effort in Astana (now Nur-Sultan), Kazakhstan, involving Assad, Turkey, and Iran, which led to agreements on a series of “de-escalation zones” around the country. Moscow conceived of Astana as a way to negotiate independent of the west, with the understanding that a formalized outcome at Geneva would be necessary for international recognition. But the West largely rejects the Astana process and continues to condition financial support and easing of sanctions on progress in Geneva.
Western diplomats hope Assad will eventually capitulate to their demands in order to get sanctions relief, reconstruction assistance, and normalization of relations with the West. But insiders say Assad’s position has not changed since peace talks between the regime and opposition forces began.
“There has never been a serious round of negotiations to resolve the Syrian conflict in Geneva,” the State Department official said. “The regime will destroy the entire country, they will destroy Damascus and everything else, before it negotiates under pressure any kind of reform.”
Even before Pedersen’s appointment, the British government privately questioned the wisdom of selecting a new U.N. envoy for Syria, on the grounds that it would create the impression of a diplomatic opening that didn’t exist.
Still, the lengthy negotiations have provided a measure of political cover to Syria and its principal military backer Russia, which have cited their support for the Geneva talks as evidence of their commitment to a peaceful settlement while prosecuting a brutal military offensive that has strengthened their military hand and terrorized Syrian civilians.
Russia first proposed the Constitutional Committee, the latest iteration of the Geneva talks, in January 2018 at a meeting in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi as part of the Astana process. The committee consists of 150 delegates—50 backed by Assad, 50 opposition representatives, and 50 members of civil society selected by the United Nations. A smaller group of 45 members has been selected to form a constitutional drafting committee.
Senior diplomats expressed cautious optimism that the Constitutional Committee, which convened for the first time on Oct. 30 in Geneva, could yield concrete results.
While it’s doubtful the regime “has its heart in transforming its government and state,” the United States intends to put pressure on “the international community and on the regime’s friends to see that that happens,” a senior State Department official told reporters on Nov. 6. “We’re trying to fix this thing, and the proximate solution is this Constitutional Committee.”
U.N. officials say Pedersen and his team are not naive and that they recognize that the process will only deliver as much or as little as Assad’s government is willing to give.
“Of course the Constitutional Committee in itself is not a solution to the conflict. … You are all reminded about that every day when you see the developments on the ground,” Pedersen told reporters in Geneva on Nov. 8, following the first round of talks. “My hope is that the meetings of the Constitutional Committee can be a door opener to the broader political process.”
But on the eve of the first round of talks, the Syrian government sought to distance itself from the Constitutional Committee, contending that the Assad-backed delegates were not acting as members of the government and thus lacked the authority to hold him to any commitments made during the dialogue. Assad said as much during an Oct. 31 interview with the official Syrian Arab News Agency.
“The Syrian government is not part of these negotiations nor of these discussions,” Assad said, adding that the pro-Syrian government delegation “represents the viewpoint of the Syrian government” but cannot bind Damascus.
“Legally, we are not a part of the Constitutional Committee, and this does not imply the government’s recognition of any party,” Assad said.
The Syrian leader added that the participation of a pro-Syrian government group in the talks should not be interpreted as a sign that Damascus is committed the U.N.-brokered Geneva diplomatic process. He said he views the Russian-led diplomatic initiative, started in Sochi, as the only legitimate diplomatic way forward.
The Syrian government-backed delegation to the Constitutional Committee, meanwhile, has made it clear that the Geneva talks will not result in a halt to war. “Our fight against terrorism is an ongoing war that we started before our meeting … and we will keep up the fight after our meeting until the liberation of the last inch of land of our precious homeland,” Ahmad Kuzbari, the head of the pro-government delegation, said late last month.
Meanwhile, the opposition groups represented at the talks—though backed by major powers, primarily Turkey—are fractured and have little power on the ground in Syria. The civil society group is also splintered, with disputes over its composition holding up the committee’s announcement for more than a year.
Nasr al-Hariri, the president of the Syrian Negotiation Commission, which appointed members of the opposition delegation to the Constitutional Committee, said “we feel slightly optimistic” after the first round of talks, despite what he characterized as an attempt by the government delegation to “waste time” by steering discussions away from talk of a new constitution.
The opposition delegation, he said, pressed the U.N. to focus the next round of talks primarily on the constitution, but he hoped the meetings would ultimately broaden to address some of the most intractable political matters, including the release of tens of thousands of detainees in government custody and the need for “a true and genuine political transition from dictatorship to democracy.”
“We can’t say there is a genuine transition in Syria without a new constitution or with the old constitution, which gives the regime, the president, any future president, all the power,” he added.
That seemed a tall order, given Assad’s lopsided military advantage over the armed opposition. But Hariri insisted that the Syrian people and the international community still wield considerable leverage over Damascus. “Without a genuine political transition,” he said, “Assad’s regime can’t normalize its relations with states, rejoin the Arab League, obtain relief from sanctions, or reconstruction [funds from the West].”
Some observers, however, doubt that Assad will be willing to sacrifice his power to improve his international standing.
“This would be hard under any circumstances, but when Assad is effectively winning the war [and] now he’s asked to go to the table to talk to opposition groups that basically control nothing in Syria … he doesn’t understand why he should do that,” Lund said.
Although seven Kurds are on the Constitutional Committee, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political arm of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which control much of northeastern Syria, has been left out. The Kurds have never been represented at the Geneva talks because Turkey, a NATO ally, sees the SDF as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.
But the Kurds argue that they are the only indigenous group that Assad will take seriously because their fighters still control a large swath of territory in northeastern Syria. In July 2018, a delegation led by Ilham Ahmed, SDC executive president, traveled to Damascus for negotiations with the Assad regime. There, Ahmed met Ali Mamlouk, one of Assad’s most trusted advisors—a far more senior Syrian government representative than any of the Assad-backed delegates who have traveled to Geneva.
The talks fizzled quickly and have not resumed, partially due to U.S. objections to direct negotiations of any form between Assad and the Kurds.
“[The United States] told her, ‘This will give Assad more legitimacy’ and ‘We will solve the problems between you and Turkey,’” the Syrian analyst said.
Instead of direct negotiations, the U.S. State Department pushed the Kurds to pressure Assad by partnering with the Turkish-backed opposition (TSO)—the very same groups that attacked the northwestern city of Afrin in 2018 and have terrorized the population of northeastern Syria in recent weeks. Despite the atrocities committed in Afrin, Ahmed agreed to meet with the TSO just weeks before the Oct. 6 phone call between Trump and Erdogan. But the TSO rejected the offer and later supported Erdogan’s invasion.
The senior government official said the State Department “neither discouraged nor encouraged” contact between the SDC and the regime, but “what we consistently did—and had [the right] under U.S. law to do—was to note that the regime was both an international pariah and target of many international and U.S. sanctions.” Therefore, the United States could not work with the Kurds in “any area where they were paired with the regime.”
If the SDC were to “throw their weight into the Assad camp, for example by joining the regime list in the Constitutional Committee, then we’d have to severely limit relations with SDC just like we do other regime backers.”
Since the Turkish incursion, Ahmed has pushed to resume direct negotiations with the regime. The Kurds believe they have significant economic leverage over Assad: With the help of U.S. troops, they have maintained control of Syria’s rich oil fields, which Assad is eyeing to boost the regime’s all but ruined economy. They believe Assad’s Russian backers may support their efforts: Moscow is increasingly unhappy with the Syrian regime’s reliance on Shiite militias that now make up the backbone of its forces after the vast majority were killed in the civil war. The Alawite community, in particularly, is increasingly threatened by Iranian activity in Syria, including Tehran’s attempts to convert Alawites to Shiism.
Ahmed has put together a list of conditions to send to the regime, including the departure of all Iranian-backed Shiite militias from Syria, the Syrian analyst said.
“If the U.S. and Russia work together to push a direct negotiation between SDF and Assad, that will save the time and efforts of this useless Constitutional Committee,” the analyst said.
Although the State Department is unlikely to support direct negotiations between Assad and the Kurds, U.S. diplomats are quietly signaling that they may provide the Kurds more political backing in the Geneva talks. Responding to questions from Foreign Policy, a State Department spokesperson said the United States supports representation of “the populations of northeast Syria” at Geneva, though did not specifically mention the Kurds.
“We are focused on a Syrian-owned and Syrian-led political solution … which must include full representation for all Syrians in order to achieve a more peaceful and united Syria,” the spokesperson said. “U.S. officials have consistently made clear that this includes the populations of northeast Syria. We have intervened repeatedly with the U.N. to this end and will continue to do so.”
Some officials contend that the diplomatic process in Geneva, however imperfect, constitutes the only forum that brings together a cross-section of Syrian players into the same room.
At some point, the reasoning goes, the United States, Russia, and other key powers will need to fashion some political settlement ending the conflict in Syria. The Constitutional Committee could provide a forum, under U.N. auspices, to bless a final peace deal.
For some opposition figures, the convening of the Constitutional Committee—despite its limitations—constitutes a victory of sorts because it confers a certain political status on a movement that has seen its political and military fortunes wane.
“Any kind of process is a win for us,” a representative of the Syrian opposition coalition told Foreign Policy. “In the end, when you see the regime sitting beside the opposition, it is giving the opposition legitimacy” as a bona fide political force in Syria.
Translating seats at the diplomatic table into real influence is another thing. But for now, it’s pretty much the only diplomatic game in town.
“The Constitutional Committee may be a diplomatic fig leaf, but it is the best fig leaf available to the U.N. right now,” said Richard Gowan, the U.N. director for the International Crisis Group. “Geneva is unlikely to deliver much quickly, but as the military situation on the ground shifts, it is at least a potential channel for discussing a political settlement in future.”
Robbie Gramer contributed reporting.
Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman