BEIRUT — A breakthrough in U.N.-backed Syria peace talks in Geneva this week seems hardly more likely than in seven failed earlier rounds as President Bashar al-Assad pushes for total military victory and his opponents stick by their demand he leave power.
U.N. Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura said on Monday the Syrian government had not yet confirmed that it would attend the talks. A Syrian newspaper reported that the government delegation would delay its planned Tuesday arrival in Geneva because of the opposition’s insistence Assad step down.
The opposition’s stance is seen by Damascus and its allies as divorced from reality after the government’s steady march of victories since Russia entered the war in 2015. The rebels have been forced from all Syria’s big cities and their hopes of toppling Assad by military means look finished.
The opposition has also accused the government of refusing to seriously engage.
“The Assad regime must not be allowed to play for time while people are being besieged and bombed,” Yahya al-Aridi, newly appointed head of the opposition’s negotiating committee, said on Sunday.
Aridi was chosen last week after the opposition rejigged its negotiations committee – jettisoning as its leader a more hardline opponent of Assad in what some speculated might be a move towards softening its position. But the statement it put out after meeting on Friday reiterated its demand that Assad go before the start of a political transition under any peace deal.
Last week a senior Assad adviser said talks could succeed only if rebels laid down their arms. Over the weekend, air strikes on the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta district near Damascus intensified, killing 41 people on Sunday and Monday, according to a war monitor.
“You cannot expect very much,” said Nikolaos Van Dam, a former Dutch diplomat in Damascus and author of two books about Syria.
“The regime doesn’t want to really negotiate. They want to reconquer every inch of Syrian territory and then negotiate. But then the opposition would have no bargaining chips,” he said.
The Syrian civil war, now in its seventh year, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and caused the world’s worst refugee crisis, driving 11 million from their homes. All previous diplomatic initiatives have swiftly collapsed over the opposition demand that Assad leave power and his refusal to go.
Troops from Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States, as well as militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, have all now joined arrived on the battlefield.
Russia has pushed its own parallel track of diplomacy since early this year, bringing together Assad’s other main ally Iran, and Turkey, which has been one of the biggest rebel supporters.
Russia has elections next year and President Vladimir Putin wants to show progress towards a political deal after two years of fighting far from Russian soil. Moscow has already said it will bring many troops home from Syria by the end of the year.
Putin may also seek to tout diplomatic progress as he angles for the West to take some of the burden of Syria’s post-war reconstruction, now likely to fall on Russia, Iran and China.
Western foreign ministers said in September their support hinges on a “credible political process leading to a genuine political transition”, a process they have said requires the involvement of the opposition.
“Russia wants the end of the war but it wants its ally intact. So what would be the compromise that is acceptable to the opposition or to the other countries? It’s not clear to me,” said Van Dam.