Months of preparations, behind-the-scenes negotiations and coordination between the powers all came to nought on Wednesday when the talks for ending the war in Syria ended in Geneva before they began.
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The few authorized representatives of the rebel and opposition groups who were allowed to come to the meeting did not sit for one minute in the same room with the representatives of the Syrian regime, despite being in the same hotel. The conference ended so abruptly that on Thursday, opposition members who had not managed to change their travel plans in time were still arriving in Geneva.
Staffan de Mistura, the United Nation’s special envoy, insisted that this wasn’t a failure of the talks and that they would resume on February 25 – it seems you have to work for the UN for 40 years to develop this ability to put an optimistic façade over such a thudding failure.
What wasn’t done to bring the two sides to Geneva? The Jordanians and Saudis prepared an approved list of “non-extreme” opposition groups, the Russians vetted the list for “terrorists” and when those who remained insisted that the regime and the Russians cease, at least for the duration of the talks, bombing and attacking their towns and villages, the U.S. secretary of state threatened them with withholding supplies if they refused to turn up. The UN, fearing of losing its channel to the Syrian government, even censored its own people's reports, taking out references to the policy of the Syrian Army and Hezbollah of besieging and starving rebel villages and towns.
It still wasn’t enough. As news arrived in Geneva of new attacks and dozens of civilian casualties in new Russian airstrikes in support of the regime push on the ground, there simply was no room for negotiations. Taking the opposition leaders out of the region to cool Switzerland couldn’t detach them from the news back home. Nothing worked, not even the tactic of holding “proximity talks” in separate rooms, as was proved in the past in the dying stages of the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process. The two sides simply have nothing to talk about, no matter how many rooms are used.
Russian pressure and a general unwillingness to act directly against the regime have brought the West, and in particular the Obama administration, to forsake all its “red lines” on Syria, including the abandoned insistence that President Bashar Assad must leave as a precondition for the formation of a new government. In the wake of Geneva’s failures, Western diplomats blamed the Russians but it was all very half-hearted.
Boosted by the euphoria of their success in signing the nuclear deal with Iran, they had convinced themselves that diplomacy could work for Syria as well. Meanwhile, the twin crises of the threat of ISIS terror and the surge of over a million refugees in to Europe during 2015 have fallen in their laps, diverting attention from the fact that the overwhelming majority of suffering and deaths of around 300 thousands Syrian citizens has been caused by the Assad regime, supported by Iran and Russia.
The U.S.-led coalition is sticking to its policy of only targeting ISIS in Syria. The airstrikes are starting to show results, the area controlled by the Islamic State has shrunk and the supply routes to its main stronghold in Raqqah are under threat, but that doesn’t help over half of the Syrian population forced to leave their homes and over four million of them who have been forced to go in to exile.
Israeli and Western intelligence services assess that only about 15 percent of bombing missions by the Russian air force have been against ISIS targets. The rest are on what the Russians call “terrorists,” the main rebel groups, which unlike ISIS, are focused on fighting the Assad regime. After four months, the Russian campaign is beginning to yield results on the ground and the forces loyal to the regime are moving forward, most significantly this week toward rebel-held Aleppo, cutting crucial supply routes to Syria’s second-largest city.
Another result of Russia’s involvement is the resurrection of the Syrian Army, which only months ago seemed on the brink of final collapse. Now thanks to Russian advisers, and commanders from Iran’s Quds Force and Hezbollah, and of course a continuing airlift of Russian arms landing in Damascus and Latakia in Russian freighters, the Syrian Army is once again capable of deploying regular fighting units to the front-lines, capable of winning battles against the rebels.
With the tide now turning in their favor, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for the regime, or Russian President Vladimir Putin, anxious to present military victories to the Russian public back home, to agree in the near future to a ceasefire. In the absence of any other hope, the West has nothing to offer Syria except the promise of financial aid.
Anxious that come the end of winter, the stream of Syrian refugees will intensify once again, a conference of “donor nations” gathered in London on Thursday, with the aim of promising funds for helping the refugees closer to their homes, in the neighboring countries to Syria. The representatives of the Syrian opposition there were more focused on the presence of Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, whose country in backing Assad, they claimed, is directly responsible for prolonging Syria’s misery.
British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that over 10 billion dollars had been committed, but even if the money promised it is delivered, it will be too late for the tens of thousands of civilians, new refugees, already fleeing Aleppo for the Turkish border, before their city is subjected to another hunger siege.