On Sunday, Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, held talks in Jeddah with his Saudi counterpart Adel Al Jubeir. The focus of the meeting was the conflict in Syria, specifically the sixth round of talks in Astana that will begin this week and the Geneva talks that will follow them. The last round of talks in Kazakhstan drew representatives from Iran and Russia, which both back the government of Bashar Al Assad, and Turkey, which supports the rebel groups opposing it.
Despite the progress made there, peace has continued to elude Syria. The principal reason for this, as The National has repeatedly pointed out, is Mr Al Assad. He has skilfully exploited the rifts among the opposition groupings while ruthlessly bombing his people into submission. At the same time, he and his foreign backers have sought to equate the Syrian government's consolidation of authority with peace and stability.
Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront of efforts to forge a united front under the umbrella of Syrian opposition's High Negotiations Council. Riyadh will host a meeting next month of the various competing factions. Mr Lavrov said on Thursday that Moscow supports Saudi Arabia's work in this regard and expressed the hope that the talks in Astana may result in the creation of a de-escalation zone in Idlib, which is currently held by rebels. The prospect of a new war-free zone in addition to the three that currently exist should be welcomed.
Anything that reduces the suffering of Syrians deserves the fullest support of the international community. Yet the world must not lose sight of the fact that de-escalation zones are a palliative, not a cure. Their creation must not distract from the fundamental source of strife in Syria: Mr Al Assad. There is a concerted effort underway by Mr Al Assad’s foreign sponsors to portray the question of his own future as a settled issue. Claims that Saudi Arabia has agreed that Mr Al Assad should continue to rule over Syria are being energetically circulated. This is a misrepresentation of facts.
The idea that a man who has brought so much misery to Syrians should remain a permanent fixture in Syria's future government is morally unpalatable even to contemplate. But in the interests of ending the conflict, and in the hope of accelerating the onset of peace, many in the region have taken the view that Mr Al Assad may stay on temporarily. Once Syria has transitioned to the post-war phase, Mr Al Assad can play no role. The failure of talks to achieve results has taught us to temper our expectations. Nonetheless we must look to the Astana talks, which are aimed at alleviating the agony of the Syrian people, with hope.
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