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Week in Review: Small Steps Forward in Geneva, as Powerful Patrons Force Talks

After the long road to Geneva II came a small win: an agreement to deliver food, and release women and children from the besieged areas of Homs.

Written by Lara Setrakian Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Government forces have taken aim at rebel-held neighborhoods in Homs for more than a year, trapping an estimated 500 families in desperate conditions (we’ve covered the abject lack of health care and the destruction of schools, while residents tell us they’re lucky to get one meal a day).

Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. Syria envoy and chief negotiator at Geneva, announced the Homs agreement on Sunday night. It came after weekend of what he described as confidence-building discussions between the government of President Bashar al Assad and the political opposition leaders across the table. Sunday was the first day they met face-to-face; in the run up, they traded insults and pleaded their case to the open press.

“These people really don’t represent the opposition,” Bouthaina Shaaban, an advisor to Assad, told the BBC. “We can’t discuss the future of Syria with a small group of people who we doubt, who do they represent.”

Not much confidence there. Complicating the search for common ground, each side came into the talks with a starkly different narrative – opposing versions of who’s to blame for the bloodshed and what to do to stop it. The Assad regime wants to put the focus on the fight against “terrorists,” its stock term for rebel groups battling against it. The fact that Syria’s war has attracted a global pool of militant jihadis bolsters that argument. This week, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Assad himself became a one-man super magnet for terrorism; the regime’s own policies of bashing and blockading civilian areas has created the chaotic space for jihadis to thrive.

For the opposition, the jihadi point comes off as a deliberate distraction, a way for the regime to avoid discussing an end to Assad’s rule. AFP ran an exclusive interview with Assad this week, in which he cited a “significant” chance he would run for re-election this year.

“I see no reason why I shouldn’t stand,” Assad said. If “there is public desire and a public opinion in favor of my candidacy, I will not hesitate for a second to run for election.”

Meanwhile, in Syria, the war drags on with catastrophic consequences that stretch beyond the country’s borders. Human rights groups said the Assad government launched air raids on rebel-held areas around the country. The Telegraph reported that al-Qaida brigades are training some of the hundreds of British and European jihadists fighting in Syria to set up terror cells at home. Both Israel and Turkey are dealing with the terrorist blowback – Al Qaida elements and the threat of violence spilling over their borders. Lebanon is seeing continued attacks on its territory.

Nothing has changed in the downward spiral of food shortages and basic necessities, in which dozens have died of starvation. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a coalition of major aid and human rights groups called the humanitarian crisis in Syria the “worst of our time.” On the sidelines of that meeting, Dr. Annie Sparrow told us that the reports of polio reported to date have underestimated the extent of the epidemic; she believes there are more than 100 confirmed cases on the ground.

Negotiations are set to continue through this week, digging into the really tough questions on Monday: how to pick up on the discussions from Geneva I, which ended with a communique calling for political change, a transitional authority in Syria. It would have to be one that both sides could accept.

Left on their own it’s practically inconceivable that the regime and the opposition would agree on forming one, arriving at an enforceable roadmap to a power-sharing peace. What’s more likely, if Geneva II is to prove a success, is that the same geopolitical patrons that pushed both sides to talk would find a way to break the impasse. In other words, in order to achieve peace in Syria, Russia would need to lean on the regime to make concessions, while the US steers the opposition to accommodate. On top of that, Iran and Saudi Arabia would need to buy into what’s decided, and agree to stop fueling the fight. That’s harder to achieve, with Iran’s invitation to Geneva summarily revoked.

Clearly, there are a lot more players in the game than you see at the negotiating table. That’s precisely why it’s become so hard to untie the knot, to end the churning of Syria’s war.

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