Fragile Syrian Peace Talks Coalesce in Switzerland
January 22, 2014 • 1:32PM

January 21, the day before the opening of the "Geneva II" talks on Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Kerry were scheduled to hold a trilateral meeting in Montreux, Switzerland, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Li is to arrive in Montreux today, where Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem will also be present along with many others.

Wednesday, January 22, the day of the formal opening of the talks, foreign ministers or other representatives of about 40 sponsoring countries will speak on their support of the Syrian peace talks. It is this Wednesday gathering from which Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif was excluded when Ban Ki-Moon withdrew his invitation under U.S. pressure. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has characterized that disinvitation as an error, "but not a catastrophe." In fact, Zarif is always in close contact with Muallem, and both with Lavrov, so Iran will indeed play a central role.

Over the past weeks, the Saudi-led Syrian opposition coalition has voted not to attend, then, Jan. 18, voted that they would attend, then withdrew in response to the invitation to Iran, then agreed to come when that invitation was cancelled. Overall, absolutely nothing is certain about these "peace talks." What makes them possible at all, is the determination of Russia's President Vladimir Putin that they succeed, and that of the war-avoidance camp in Washington, for now including John Kerry along with top U.S. military and civilians like Bob Gates and many others, but certainly not Barack Obama.

Two days after Montreux, on Friday, January 24, a much smaller group is to meet in Geneva to move towards actual negotiations. UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is to preside over negotiations between two Syrian delegations: the government's, led by Foreign Minister Muallem, and the opposition's, led by the Saudi-chosen head of the opposition coalition (NCROF), Ahmed Jarba. The negotiations will be observed by U.S. and Russian diplomats. The composition of the opposition delegation appears not to have been determined yet, but the groups of the nonviolent, internal Syrian opposition will not be present as of now. Their best-known organization refused NCROF's invitation.

A source in the Russian delegation to the talks told Interfax that "The first round of negotiations will last for seven to ten days. Then there will be a short break, and then negotiations will resume." He said that Russia will be represented by Deputy Foreign Ministers Gennady Gatilov and Mikhail Bogdanov, and "if it becomes necessary, the seniority level of the Russian and U.S. representatives in Geneva... may be raised." This is exactly what was done in the successful Iran nuclear negotiations in Geneva last November.

Lebanese journalist Jean Aziz interviewed two experts in al-Monitor of January 20. Syria's National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar, himself part of the internal opposition in Syria, does not think Geneva II as such will make any progress. He described it as at best "an uncertain beginning for a long negotiation process whose conditions for success have not yet ripened." He reports that the government's working paper will demand that everyone agree on fighting terrorism and preventing outside interference in Syria. Then it goes on to discuss the formation of a transitional governing body.

Geneva I held that the solution to the crisis must be purely Syrian. But Muallem will show that most of the leaders of the Islamist groups fighting in Syria are not Syrians. This is a result of foreign intervention in the conflict. Therefore, the first step is to halt external interference and eliminate terrorism, which would allow renegotiating the transitional governing body back into Syrian hands.

Aziz's other source, an unnamed former Lebanese minister, also mentioned the Syrian government's hopes to consolidate ceasefires and to get aid to the displaced. More significantly, he "said that what he heard in Damascus is that Geneva's negotiating framework will be expanded and made more comprehensive. If that happens, the framework expansion may take place way from the negotiating table and away from the media.... Regarding the serious issues, the former minister said that he had heard talk about efforts to form a five-member committee to discuss them. That committee would include representatives of Ankara, Moscow, Riyadh, Tehran, and Washington."