BEIRUT // US secretary of state John Kerry on Sunday warned Bashar Al Assad not to exploit the shaky truce in Syria, underlining the deep mistrust between the country’s warring parties and their backers a day before indirect peace talks were set to resume in Geneva.
“If the regime and its backers think they can test boundaries, diminish their compliance in certain areas, or act in ways that call into question their commitment to the cessation – without serious consequences for the progress we have made – they are mistaken,” Mr Kerry said in Paris after meeting foreign ministers from France, the UK, Germany, Italy and the European Union.
The latest round of talks follows a two-week pause in fighting between the forces of the regime and its allies, Russia and Iran, and a wide range of rebel groups.
Despite mistrust between the sides, the “cessation of hostilities” agreement has seen a marked reduction in violence and raised hopes that diplomatic cooperation between Washington and Moscow has created the context for serious peace talks that might lead to a more permanent ceasefire.
While both sides allege violations of the truce, the first countrywide ceasefire implemented in the five-year war has largely held. It was initially described as a two-week halt beginning on February 27, but the UN has since called the deal “open-ended”.
However, the focus on reducing hostilities has overshadowed the key political questions that have caused every previous round of talks to fail, and observers say they see very little change in the positions of the most important players.
Indeed, the hand of Mr Al Assad and his military patrons in Moscow and Tehran has only strengthened since the temporary ceasefire, as battle lines that they had pushed forward with Russia’s intervention have hardened.
Government forces remain in a position where they could besiege and completely cut off rebel-held parts of Aleppo it the truce fails.
On Friday, after the Riyadh-based opposition umbrella group representing a coalition of rebels and factions, the High Negotiations Committee, said they would attend the talks, rebels and activists in Aleppo said fighter jets bombed rebel positions in civilian neighbourhoods. Daily violations have been reported. Russia claims that it is targeting ISIL and Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat Al Nusra. Al Nusra has a presence in areas controlled by rebels that signed the truce, and many have some tactical relationship with Nusra.
Mr Kerry accused Mr Al Assad’s forces of most of the truce violations.
The United Nations special envoy to the Syrian crisis, Staffan de Mistura has said the talks will last for two weeks and ideally would first focus on the make-up of a transitional government, followed by a new constitution and parliamentary and presidential elections 18 months from the start of negotiations.
But neither side is budging on the crucial question of when – or even if – Mr Al Assad will be required to relinquish power. The opposition wants a transitional government leading to eventual elections, and guarantees that Mr Al Assad will not be a part of Syria’s political future.
Syria has refused to discuss Mr Al Assad’s future and any potential elections at this round of talks. “We will not talk with anyone who wants to discuss the presidency ... Bashar Al Assad is a red line,” Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem said on Saturday. “If they [the opposition] continue with this approach, there’s no reason for them to come to Geneva.”
The regime says it will go ahead with parliamentary elections next month, and only hold presidential polls in 2021, after Mr Al Assad’s current term expires.
The opposition’s western backers warned that such comments from Mr Muallem were a provocation and called on Russia and Iran to force their client to live up to its agreed upon commitments.
“It’s a provocation ... a bad sign and doesn’t correspond to the spirit of the ceasefire,” French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said in Paris, speaking next to Mr Kerry.
“President Assad is singing on a completely different song sheet and sent his foreign minister out yesterday to try to act as a spoiler and take off the table what president Putin and the Iranians have agreed to,” Mr Kerry said.
Beyond the Syrian government’s refusal to address future elections at Geneva, there are a host of other potential pitfalls.
The presence in the HNC of hardline Salafi groups such as Ahrar Al Sham and Jaish Al Islam, which have been accused of war crimes and have served as allies of Al Nusra, could hamper negotiations. At the last round of talks, the HNC controversially named Mohammed Alloush, the leader of Jaish Al Islam as their chief negotiator.
The opposition and Turkey also strongly reject the inclusion of the PYD – Syria’s most powerful Kurdish faction which presides over most of Syria’s border with Turkey – in any negotiations. The PYD’s militia is the key US ally in the fight against ISIL in Syria.
The PYD was snubbed at the last round of talks in Geneva and there is no indication that they will be at the latest negotiations. But given their strength and efforts in the war, they will want a say in the future of Syria.
While Mr Kerry publicly criticises Damascus and its backers, he has very little leverage to make them change their behaviour or reach political compromises with the opposition.
The White House continues to approach the Syrian war with great caution, and does not trust the rebels with the kind of military aid that would change Mr Al Assad's calculations. It appears to have placed the negotiations in Mr Kerry's hands with little interest in getting more involved. A senior White House official admitted to The Atlantic magazine in a story published last week that "Kerry's looking like a chump with the Russians, because he has no leverage".
For the opposition’s supporters in Europe, containing ISIL and the Syrian refugee crisis – including its domestic political fallout – have become more important than the removal of Mr Al Assad and a victory for the opposition. their desire for an expedient solution is also playing into the regime’s hands.
But opponents of Mr Al Assad say that without a political settlement, the war will continue and so will the flow of refugees and the threat from extremists.
“Assad remaining in power in whatever form is a recipe for the continuation of war because the people will not accept that, and [in case of] any political agreement that is less than this red line, you will find a complete separation between the popular forces on the ground and the politicians who would presumably sign such an agreement,” said Munzer Akbik, a member of the Syrian National Coalition, one of the groups in the HNC.
“What we’re going to witness is a long process that is not going to produce anything in the short and medium term.”
While Syria’s western supporters appear now to be more flexible on when Mr Al Assad leaves power during a transition period, Saudi Arabia and Turkey do not seem to have changed their position that he must go at the beginning of the process.
Russia has tried to use the intervention in Syria to present itself as a new power broker and mediator between the Gulf countries and Iran. Moscow has at times publicly broken with hardline statements by Syrian officials, such as when Mr Al Assad said last month that the regime would fight until the entire country was retaken, and has held an ambiguous position on the president’s fate.
“They want to portray themselves as an honest broker for us,” Mr Akbik said. “But they are not.”
With little hope for a quick and successful conclusion to the talks, the idea of a de facto partition of Syria along ethnic and confessional religious lines under a federal system has gained traction in diplomatic circles. But both the opposition and the regime have rejected the idea.
* With reporting from Agence France-Presse