The Geneva negotiations opened officially on Monday with neither fanfare nor any hope of an exit strategy.
That they held a meeting for its own sake — without objectives or a means for transition to peace — is a mockery for the Syrians crushed by five years of civil war, for the 7 million internally displaced people and the 5 million refugees abroad, forced into refugee camps or hunted like prey as they seek salvation in Europe. The failure of the United Nations’ diplomatic efforts, which seem only to lengthen the conflict, will exacerbate an epochal emergency.
On Friday, the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC), created in December with Saudi support, formalized its boycott of the negotiations. One of its members, Hassan Abdel Azim, flew to Switzerland but refused to enter the negotiating room until the group’s basic demands were met: that the United Nations guarantees an end to Russian airstrikes and sieges on rebel-held towns. The U.N. offered assurances, and HNC negotiators traveled to Geneva over the weekend.
But by Monday morning, dozens of Russian and government airstrikes marked a new offensive by President Bashar al-Assad, and rebel commander Ahmed al-Seoud told Reuters: “We took guarantees from America and Saudi to enter the negotiations … (but) the regime has no goodwill and has not shown us any goodwill.” The HNC has threatened to walk out. But who will discuss what if the opposition delegation is absent? The future attendance of the talks is uncertain — except the fact that the Syrian Kurds of Rojava are excluded, on account of a Turkish ultimatum.
The HNC itself is a fragile bloc. Its composition is an artificial union under a weak umbrella: namely their common antipathy toward Assad. They disagree on almost everything else: the future of Syria, its possible secularism and socio-economic issues. Factions range from hardline Salafis of Jaysh al-Islam and the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham to the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood and National Coalition to the liberal, socialist National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change.
The parties’ positions are incompatible with the goals of any peace talks — transitional government, draft constitution and elections — because they’re tied to special interests that have little to do with the needs of the population. On the battlefield and on the table in Geneva, a different struggle is unfolding: regional and global powers redefining their areas of influence.
And not just influence over Syria but also Iraq (where the Pentagon says it needs to send more soldiers), Yemen and Libya. Caught in the middle are hundreds of thousands of refugees — the number is expected to rise — that Europe wants to lock in Turkey with a €3 billion gift to Ankara. Brussels insists Turkey is a safe place, pretending not to see the ongoing war in the southeast against the Kurds, a conflict producing thousands of internally displaced people of its own.
The Turkish war against the Kurds is even more serious because it is not limited to the borders of the country, but extends to Iraq and Syria. Both through diplomatic and military channels, Ankara aims to prevent the expansion of Rojava’s borders, even though this could result in a diminished fight against ISIS.
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, are among the few forces on the ground to contain the Islamists. And they aren’t stopping, either. They’ve just announced the launch of a new operation to the west of the Euphrates River. In the coming days Kurdish troops will start a counteroffensive in the cities of Jarabulus, Manbij and A’zaz. The Euphrates is an insuperable red line for Ankara because it would mean the Kurds control almost all of Syria’s border with Turkey.
The fig leaf of the Islamic State is faltering. The U.S.-led coalition supported by the Gulf is less and less interested in the “caliphate.” This is evident in Raqqa, which was bombed for days after the attacks in Paris and now again abandoned. Left to struggle alone are the same civilians who every day — as reported by the group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently — boycott the administrative machinery of ISIS. They are fighters but also doctors, lawyers and teachers, waging the most dangerous form of civil disobedience.