'Golden opportunity missed': Syria peace talks falter, again

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura gives a press conference closing a round of Intra Syria peace talks at the European headquarters of the United Nations offices in Geneva, on Dec 14, 2017.
UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura gives a press conference closing a round of Intra Syria peace talks at the European headquarters of the United Nations offices in Geneva, on Dec 14, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA (NYTIMES) - The eighth round of Syrian peace talks brokered by the United Nations fizzled to a close Thursday (Dec 14) without progress toward a deal to end seven ruinous years of war, and with the chief mediator saying the Syrian government was not "really looking to find a way to have a dialogue".

The UN mediator, Staffan de Mistura, had called the parties to Geneva hoping for the first "real negotiations" in two years, but he acknowledged to reporters that "negotiations in reality did not take place".

The two-week exercise, he said, was a "golden opportunity missed".

De Mistura said he planned to convene another round of talks in Geneva in January but needed an infusion of new ideas and would sound out the major powers when he briefs the UN Security Council in New York on Tuesday.

But in a television interview broadcast Wednesday night, de Mistura had already made clear one critical requirement for progress: urging President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the key ally of President Bashar Assad of Syria, "to have the courage" to pressure the Syrian government into concessions.

De Mistura had insisted the two sides travel to Geneva without preconditions, and he said he would assess whether any party was sabotaging the peace process. They had not done so, he told reporters, but he did not disguise the main obstacle to progress.

"I did not see the government really looking to find a way to have a dialogue," he told reporters. "I did see the opposition trying to." De Mistura had called the Syrian parties to Geneva hoping to capitalise on a slowdown in fighting across much of the country, the military demise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and an uptick in international diplomacy exemplified by talks on Syria between Presidents Donald Trump and Putin in Vietnam last month.

Once-fractious opposition groups, cut down on the battlefield by the combined muscle of Russian air power, Iranian militias and the Syrian military, arrived in Geneva with a unified platform after issuing a communiqué that said Assad had to give up power at the start of any political transition.

As a result, the Syrian government's chief negotiator, Bashar al-Jaafari, delayed his arrival at the talks, broke off for a week-long trip to Damascus, Syria's capital, in the middle and left on Thursday denouncing the opposition for setting preconditions in a bid to "blackmail" the process.

De Mistura expressed disappointment with the opposition's insistence on ruling out a role for Assad but said 11 meetings with opposition negotiators in the course of two weeks had constructively explored approaches to holding elections and drafting a new Constitution.

His seven meetings with the government delegation never moved beyond terrorism, a topic that has stalled discussion of a political transition in all the previous rounds of talks in Geneva.

"Serious negotiation on a political solution required real political will, not this kind of Ping-Pong, particularly from the government side," de Mistura said.

In a breach of diplomatic protocol, the government delegation this week posted a video clip showing Jaafari in front of a map instructing de Mistura on terrorist trouble spots across the country.