The release of Syrian political prisoners would be a "game changer" in resolving the conflict, a senior member of the Syrian opposition has told The National as the eighth round of UN-brokered peace talks continues in Geneva.
Human rights activists say that hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have disappeared in the Syrian prison system since the uprising against president Bashar Al Assad's rule began in 2011, and they suspect that many of those have been tortured to death or secretly killed.
"We were promised by Russia that the discussion on detainees would be conducted as a confidence-building measure in Astana and that it would follow [the de-escalation agreement] but in fact nothing has happened", Bassma Kodmani, who is part of the unified delegation representing the Syrian opposition in Geneva, told The National on Tuesday.
Ms Kodmani was referring to separate Syria peace talks held in the Kazakh capital of Astana between rebel-backed Turkey and regime allies Russia and Iran, which led to the establishment of so-called "de-escalation zones" — areas in Syria where fighting between regime forces and rebels was supposed to cease.
Russia has been heavily involved militarily in the Syrian conflict, helping the Assad regime to reverse its fortunes on the ground.
Ms Kodmani believes that Russia either “has not been able to convince or pressure the regime to release prisoners or it doesn’t have the intention of doing so”.
“Unfortunately we have not seen any progress over the last two years of negotiations. This is not an issue for negotiation, it’s an issue that is considered as a confidence-building measure,” she said, confirming that at least 100,000 people had been detained and some 200,000 people forcibly disappeared since 2011.
“When you count how many families are victims of detention and forced disappearance I think any country that genuinely wants want to see a political process make progress would focus today on the release of detainees.”
Editorial: Syrian regime mocks Geneva peace talks
The government should start that process by revealing the fate of prisoners whose whereabouts is unknown and releasing those still alive but captured, Ms Kodmani said.
“We have not seen any of that happen and I think there is a reason we understand — that is the regime would find itself naked and under accusations for the terrible crimes it has committed.”
“The regime wants to continue on using humanitarian suffering as a weapon,” she added.
Ms Kodmani, who is a member of the main opposition grouping, the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC), said the issue of detainees “is the most painful for the opposition and the most embarrassing for the regime”.
The HNC, which is part of the unified opposition delegation sent to Geneva, has pushed for the need for confidence-building measures in order to create better conditions for a political process to resolve the conflict and a lasting ceasefire. These measures include the release of prisoners and hostages, the identification of missing persons and the deliverance of humanitarian aid.
“Confidence building has not been achieved in any way," Ms Kodmani said. "It has been very disappointing the fact that we have [besieged] areas that continue to suffer badly, portraying [that] the state of mind within the regime has not really changed.”
“There has been no progress on detainees and of lifting the siege on areas that is needed the most."
The latest round of UN-brokered negotiations kicked off on Tuesday in Geneva without Assad representatives present. The opposition delegation called for direct talks with the regime, as the United Nations said it had received assurances from the government that delegates would arrive in Geneva on Wednesday.
“The one and only strategy we have seen so far [by the regime] has been to stall any attempts to move into substantiate negotiations,” said Ms Kodmani.
Mr Al Assad’s government has been surprised and “disappointed because we can see that there is [now] a better international consensus on the need to have [a] serious credible process in Geneva”.
But for the Geneva talks to be given a real chance, the regime’s delegation is “required to come on time and to engage directly in talks and not doing that can only be explained by the fact that the regime is trying to buy time, that it doesn’t have an alternative strategy,”
“The regime has found different excuses so as not to engage in direct talks and so our demand has always been to engage in direct negotiations,” Ms Kodmani said.
The latest round of talks marks the first time that Syrian opposition groups have sent a unified delegation to represent them.
Ms Kodmani said this meant the opposition was now in a better position: “Today we have a stronger position as opposition; the regime was always using the pretext that the opposition was divided and there was no one to talk as one credible opposition.”
Now, however, “we have documents that we have worked on together which are consensual and I think the international community will be surprised to see that there is so much common ground”.
Ms Kodmani also said the unified opposition delegation had been "very careful" to involve representatives of Syria's armed opposition groups, which she said was "the safest way to make sure that any political agreement that we reach here in Geneva will be implementable on the ground”.
"These are groups who are committed to a political settlement and who are committed to abide by it," she said.
"They are committed to that, so we want them on board, they are on board and nothing is happening without them approving of it."
Also on Tuesday, the UN's special envoy to Syria and mediator at the talks, Staffan de Mistura, said government forces had agreed to a two-day ceasefire in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of east Damascus where more than 100 people have been killed by two weeks of aerial bombardment that undermined a Russian plan to de-escalate fighting in the country.
“The Russians clearly wanted to firstly get a cooling down of the conflict and secondly freeze the fighting and move into a political process — that is our intention as well,” Ms Kodmani said, adding that this was what the HNC wanted also.
“We may not agree on what are the terms for these negotiations to take place, but at least there was some agreement between the groups on the ground as well as Russia that a de-escalation zone should take place,” she said.
Eastern Ghouta is located in one of the four de-escalation zones established under a deal brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey earlier this year.
“I think Russia knows, however, that these de-escalation agreements are not sustainable over time without a political process and settlement,” Ms Kodmani said.
She urged Moscow to move forward in the political process in a way that at least “satisfies the minimal requirement on the opposition side”.
“I think that is where pressure lies on Russia today to put pressure on the regime to have political progress. I think that’s why Russia supports the Geneva process this time.”