Syria peace talks in Geneva have come to a halt, even before really starting.
United Nations Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura announced a "temporary pause" in the negotiations. He said that the talks will resume on February 25 after further preparatory work.
Both parties to the talks had previously denied de Mistura's optimistic pronouncement that negotiations had started, and talks were further shaken when the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad made significant new gains in Aleppo on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Though Syrian opposition negotiators belatedly agreed to come to Geneva over the weekend, they refused to begin indirect negotiations with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. They insisted they were serious about talks but insisted on using their first meeting with de Mistura — they hadn't been talking to the regime, but to the UN, which would then relay information — to push for humanitarian measures they argued are mandated by international law.
The regime delegation said it was ready to negotiate, too, but raised doubts about the seriousness of its opposition and the process as a whole.
"We're still waiting… to find out with whom we'll be speaking," said Bashar al-Ja'fari, Syria's envoy to the United Nations and head of the regime delegation, in a press conference Tuesday. "There's still no clarity on this. One delegation, two, three, four, there are no clear answers. There's no agenda for the meeting, nothing clear."
The talks, known as "Geneva III," have been sponsored by the International Syria Support Group, an assortment of governments with an interest in Syria, including the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and others. De Mistura's job is to corral the Syrian government and opposition for negotiations meant to yield a staged political transition and a nationwide ceasefire.
A previous round of negotiations in Geneva in January and February 2014 collapsed after the Syrian government delegation, led by Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, insisted on discussing "counterterrorism" exclusively. Things were similarly troubled this time around, although the US government had been putting on an optimistic face.
"It's bumpy, and it's slow," a senior US official told VICE News before the talks' suspension, speaking on condition of anonymity. Still, he said, "we never thought it would be a perfectly smooth process in which the regime and opposition delegation would delve straight away into core issues."
The main sticking point proved to be that the parties couldn't agree what to discuss first.
The opposition High Negotiations Committee insisted on a number of humanitarian steps – including a halt to aerial bombing, relief to besieged areas and the release of detainees – before negotiations could begin. The Committee was emphatic that these measures, mandated under United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, are the "legitimate rights" of Syrians under international law. After agreeing to come to Geneva, Committee members had been under pressure to deliver gains to their constituency and feared the regime could use these issues as leverage in talks.
"These are not preconditions," said Hadi Albahra, a former president of the opposition National Coalition who has advised negotiators. "UNSC 2254 states … that these issues should be resolved immediately. So how can you ignore these clauses and start with political or military negotiations over a ceasefire?"
The regime refused to entertain what it described as preconditions dictated by opposition backers in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar.
"All the issues you referenced are priorities for the Syrian government," said Syrian envoy al-Ja'fari when asked Tuesday about humanitarian matters, counterterrorism and other agenda items. "We can't distinguish between one issue and another. Once we begin indirect dialogue, formally, we'll start to address these issues."
This impasse over humanitarian issues may have crowded out the core political discussion.
According to the US official, "What we have here is political representatives making legitimate demands for certain measures. Their legitimacy is not in question. But we also want to focus on political issues."
But the talks' international sponsors have not been able to move the conference past the problem of these non-precondition preconditions. And the talks did not take place in a vacuum: On Tuesday, the regime's forces and their allies made critical gains on the ground against rebels in the northern Aleppo countryside, prompting the opposition to cancel a planned meeting with de Mistura.
But while the war continues in Syria, who are the players who gathered in Switzerland and who will, in theory, reconvene later this month? Here is a rundown.
Syria's mainline, non-jihadist opposition was represented in Geneva by the High Negotiations Committee, or HNC. It was formed in December at a meeting of Syria's political and armed opposition in Saudi Arabia, and it is the Syrian opposition's most representative political body to date. The HNC is led by defected Syrian Prime Minister Riyadh Hijab, and its negotiating delegation is headed by Brig. Gen. As'ad al-Zouabi, a defector from the Syrian Air Force.
The representation of Syria's rebel brigades in the HNC and their continued support for the body is key to its credibility. The factions that have backed the HNC man fronts up and down western Syria, against both the Syrian regime and the Islamic State, although in northern Syria they have been partially overshadowed by jihadists.
"We want a political process that goes hand in hand with a ceasefire," said the US official, "and for that we need the key armed factions involved."
But as the regime continues to press its advantage on the battlefield, these rebels likely cannot remain invested in the process without some tangible results for Syrians inside the country.
The HNC's initial refusal to go to Geneva without humanitarian action met with broad support from the Syrian opposition, but that seems to have been deflated by its eventual, qualified agreement to attend. In light of the bloodshed in Aleppo, some are now calling for the HNC to walk away from the talks.
The HNC's monopoly on opposition representation was hard-won. For weeks, Russia had pushed for the inclusion of its preferred interlocutors – many of whom have close ties to Russia and only a tenuous link to the mainstream opposition – in the opposition delegation. De Mistura ultimately invited most of these figures as individual "advisors."
The regime and its allies also argued some rebel factions – specifically, the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham and major Damascus-area brigade Jeish al-Islam – are terrorist organizations and should be excluded from talks. Jeish al-Islam political official Muhammad Alloush actually came to Geneva to serve as the HNC's chief negotiator. Jeish al-Islam commander (and Muhammad's cousin) Zahran Alloush was killed in an alleged Russian airstrike in December.
The regime delegation headed by Ja'fari was keen to cast itself as eager to negotiate, in contrast with an opposition it says it divided and unserious. These regime representatives stressed Syrian unity and sovereignty and the imperative of counterterrorism, themes they argue are linked. The terrorist militias the Syrian government is now fighting, they say, are the tools of regional powers waging a proxy war on Syrian land.
But if negotiations actually begin, it isn't clear that the regime's delegation has been authorized to make meaningful concessions – or is even interested, for that matter.
Pro-government media personality Iyad al-Hussein wrote on Facebook last week that a deal reached in Geneva would essentially be nothing new. "Everything being discussed today at Geneva III was proposed by President al-Assad in his speech at the start of 2013: a national unity government, then presidential elections!" he wrote. "All this blood, death, poverty and destruction had to happen, just so [the opposition] would be convinced that this was their only choice!"
Before the opposition agreed to attend Geneva, it had pushed for assurances from its backers and the UN that talks would focus on a transitional governing body – not a national unity government under Assad – in line with previous international agreements. A Syrian government spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.
Opposition backers including the United States had said the opposition should attend talks to expose the regime's intransigence or somehow embarrass it, but some Syrians were skeptical that the regime really cared.
Syrian academic and writer Karam Nachar said last week that this thinking is "structurally flawed." "The regime came to Geneva in 2014 and we embarrassed it, and it embarrassed itself," wrote Nachar. "Then it dropped thousands of barrel bombs, starved people, and drove thousands into the sea. Tell me, what did we get from 'embarrassing' it?"
Free radicals and spoilers
The individual "advisors" invited by de Mistura at Russia's behest attended Geneva but seem not to have played a visible role, although Russia continued to push for them to be formally included in negotiations.
"Didn't they negotiate before and come back empty-handed? How many times do we need to do this?"
Russia also pushed for the inclusion of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The PYD's leaders were left off the Geneva guest list entirely after vocal objections from Turkey and the mainline Syrian opposition to their participation. PKK leader Cemil Bayik called the party's exclusion a "historic mistake." High-level US officials have told the PYD it will be involved in any final settlement for the country, but PYD leaders expressed dissatisfaction with being excluded from talks over the fate of the country being conducted by two parties with mixed to hostile relations with the PYD. The PYD did not respond to requests for comment.
Jihadists including Jabhat al-Nusrah and the Islamic State also were not at the talks, although they would be unwilling to participate in any case. Still, it is unclear what a ceasefire that excluded these factions would actually mean. The Islamic State is present only in its so-called caliphate, but Jabhat al-Nusrah and other jihadists are commingled with mainstream rebels throughout opposition territory, and in northern Syria in particular.
And jihadists have their own objections to the Geneva process, some not so different from those of other Syrians.
"Didn't they negotiate before and come back empty-handed? How many times do we need to do this?" Jabhat al-Nusrah media activist Abu Omar al-Ageidi told VICE News. (Abu Omar emphasized that he was not speaking on behalf of Nusrah as a whole.)
Abu Omar said he did not doubt the sincere intentions of opposition negotiators, but argued the talks are part of a plot to exhaust Syria's opposition in endless rounds of negotiations, in a repeat of what happened to the Palestinians. The opposition is "sitting with monsters who claim to be interested in humanitarianism," he said. "But they have nothing to do with it."