It took a long time for the conflicting parties in Syria to be convinced that it was not possible to resolve the conflict in the Syrian revolution by force of arms, and they could not defeat one another with force alone.
Due to the reality on the ground in Syria, international forces worked to push the conflict toward negotiations through the use international resolutions. The first Geneva Communique, International Resolution 2254, and other international resolutions facilitate access to the negotiating process, aiding in a political resolution through the appointment of a Special Envoy to the Syrian issue. That attempt at a political solution continued with the appointments of Special Envoy Lakhdar Al-Ibrahimi, Kofi Annan, and Staffan de Mistura who each hoped to succeed where his predecessors failed.
Russia continued its involvement in the conflict, becoming both a participant and a referee by preventing the collapse of the regime in Damascus. Through a field analysis, we found that the armed opposition once controlled more than 70 percent of Syria, but the Russian intervention reduced that control to about 50 percent. With Russia and the Assad regime favored by their superior air power, negotiations based on the Geneva Communique became one of few significant means to reach a political settlement.
The opposition suffered a great deal on the representative side until the conference in Vienna in October of 2015. That conference sought to find a political solution, and mandated that Saudi Arabia host the Riyadh conference, where the revolutionary forces and the political opposition would meet with a number of military factions and the High Negotiation Committee (HNC). The HNC is not a new political body in the arena of the Syrian political opposition, but is instead a reorganized form of some main figures in the opposition whose goal is to achieve a political solution according to the Geneva Communique. However, Russia does not recognize the HNC as the sole representative of the Syrian opposition, and have therefore added the "Moscow and Cairo" platforms through UN resolution 2254, and may add other opposition groups in the future.
Russia is also operating through the Astana Conference, where, along with regional parties Iran and Turkey, it has sought to address the issue of cease-fires in many Syrian areas, the exchange of abductees between the regime and military factions, and political detainees.
However, the negotiation process in both Astana and Geneva is still at the beginning of a long journey. At the conferences the regime shows a willingness to negotiate a political solution, while on the ground it is working toward a military victory. Problematically, Assad has also declared that efforts to reach a unified national government would be best served doing so under his leadership without going through the process of political transition.
One step forward, one step back
With seemingly every round of negotiations, the Syrian conflict witnesses a high-level military escalation that pushes the limits of embarrassment for the negotiating delegation and the HNC, threatening to upend their participation in the negotiating process. The process was suspended in the third round of negotiations, and when the parties returned for negotiations in the fourth round, the HNC and its delegation decided not to stop the process again, no matter the circumstances. The delegation was determined to discuss three of the baskets[i], including the political transition basket, with Special Envoy de Mistura, as the regime's delegation insisted upon adding a terrorism basket to the talks.
Russia worked to promote the idea of Astana being the alternative to the Geneva negotiations. However, the position of the HNC and its delegation is that Astana is only geared toward a ceasefire between the military factions and the regime. The HNC instead attempted to shift the focus to the four baskets during its discussion with de Mistura and his team. It sought to begin working on the basket of political transition and its components, yet the delegation representing the regime pushed back, insisting on discussing the terrorism basket. Both baskets were discussed with de Mistura and his team, with each delegation setting out what it wanted to see addressed in them. Despite what might be seen as incongruences in goals, there appears to have been some progress in the fifth round of negotiations, away from media outlets.
There was a renewed sixth round of talks in Astana, in which the Russian side proposed a draft constitution to impose on the Geneva negotiations. De Mistura and his team submitted the constitution for consideration by the technical advisory committee focusing on issues related to the transitional period, but it was reportedly rejected by both delegations. Meanwhile, the delegation for the regime worked under the table to hand over the names of its team to the Constitutional Advisory Committee (CAC). The powers of this advisory committee were the subject of debate among the negotiating delegation and the HNC. The question was whether or not it is authorized to approve the results of the work on the interim constitution or the constitutional declaration.
The answer came in the form of a proposal that intersects with the opposition delegation and the regime delegation. It was submitted to de Mistura and his team so that they could decide if it is worth negotiating. After the final meetings of the HNC in Riyadh, the committee and its delegation submitted the names of the Constitutional Technical Advisory Group, and it began its constitutional advisory meetings in Geneva in mid-June of this year.
Reality and negotiating ambition
Regional powers have been able to reach a level of understanding on the Syrian issue, specifically in regard to Astana. The main powers in Geneva, however, did not advance the issues with the same expediency as they did in Astana, due to the fact that the United States is one of the major sponsors in the negotiating process and the level of US understanding is not currently up to par. The United Nations now serves the role of facilitator, attempting to find balance with the desires of the US and Russia, and decipher what that means for the broader region as a whole.
The current state of negotiations is focused on balance and achieving dialogue. Any means to facilitate discussion and, hopefully, create some sort of balanced solution that levies power as close to the middle ground as possible is ideal. Following the protocol set out by Security Council Resolution 2254 in 2015, the focus is on building confidence among all the parties, and includes gaining unrestricted access to humanitarian aid and the release of detainees. However, there are still significant disagreements between the parties regarding the fate of Bashar al-Assad during and after the transitional period.
Despite international consensus to support the momentum of the diplomatic political process, a certain settlement between parties must be achieved in order for the negotiations in Geneva to continue. Therefore, the process at work in Geneva is essential in order to achieve a mechanism for the implementation of Resolution 2254.
This track is a decision-making tool. The essence of Resolution 2254 is the Syrian-to-Syrian negotiations, which start and end at a fixed time, lasting six months, yet there is still no start date. In fact, there is no specific timeline in Astana or Geneva. There is, however, still time for the negotiation process, as the confidence-building process and its proposed measures have yet to begin. Following confirmation of what was agreed upon in the technical committees in mid-June 2017, Geneva will take on a new form as the negotiations begin anew, which may facilitate the search for a consensus.
Through these technical committees, the platforms of Moscow and Cairo are participating, along with the delegation of the HNC, in an attempt to create a joint committee of all opposition delegations to discuss technical issues. This does not eliminate the existence of different delegations independent of each other. However, it does open a future path toward forming a single delegation to negotiate with the Syrian regime.
Finally, the negotiating process, under a framework of finding a political solution, has a fundamental goal of stopping the war and beginning the transitional phase. The many sides see different priorities in this ultimate goal, whether it be creating a unified national government, fighting terror groups such as ISIS, Nusra, and others, or other elements. The focus of the opposition, the regime, and international actors such as the U.S. is varied, but it must be concentrated in order to make the negotiation process fruitful.
Currently the Russians and Americans are working on reaching a settlement. The question is, will that come anytime soon?
[i] In an effort to provide forward momentum to the talks, Special Envoy de Mistura outlined four ‘baskets’ of topics around which discussions could be centered. The four baskets are: governance and political transition, constitution, elections and counterterrorism.