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Upcoming talks on Syria

The seventh round of talks on Syria was held on July 12-14 in Geneva. Several processes are underway for a political settlement. Their scopes overlap occasionally but they do not repeat each other. The meeting earlier this month, Geneva 7, was held under the auspices of UN envoy Staffan de Mistura. The Saudi-backed High Negotiation Committee participated and made substantive contributions.

On previous occasions, Syrian opposition representatives refused to take part in meetings if another group or party they disagree with was also participating. UN officials had to listen to one group, then carry the message to another room hosting another group. Now there is visible improvement in the opposition’s attitude. They seem to understand that there is no other way but talking to each other, and that they need to create a Syria for all.

The Astana meetings on Syria produced concrete content for Geneva 7. Work continued on four “de-escalation zones.” The issue was raised during last month’s meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Donald Trump. Four de-escalation zones were identified: In the northern province of Idlib; in parts of Homs province; in eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus; and in the southern provinces of Daraa and Quneitra.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after the Trump-Putin meeting that experts from Russia, the US and Jordan had completed work on establishing zones in Daraa, Quneitra and As-Suwayda. In eastern Ghouta, Russian and Syrian regime forces have already established checkpoints. In Idlib, consultations are still underway.

The Geneva meetings may not have yielded concrete results yet, but they have contributed to refining the mechanisms governing the meetings. There is a two-layer format: Political and technical. Opposition groups that used to be distant from each other started consulting before participating in technical meetings with UN experts.

UN officials have proposed basic principles to guide future work on Syria’s constitution. This proposal has been widely endorsed. Technical meetings have also agreed to include in their agenda new subjects such as counterterrorism, governance and elections. No major breakthrough may be expected in these fields anytime soon, but their inclusion is an important step forward.

The Geneva meetings may not have yielded concrete results yet, but they have contributed to refining the mechanisms governing the meetings. There is a two-layer format: Political and technical. Opposition groups that used to be distant from each other started consulting before participating in technical meetings with UN experts.

Yasar Yakis

The least that can be said at this stage is that talks on Syria are being gradually streamlined, mainly due to Russia. As such, the Syrian regime will probably grow more confident and the opposition more acquiescent, but many difficulties are likely to persist.

Now that French President Emmanuel Macron has said Paris no longer insists on Bashar Assad stepping aside, Turkey is alone in its opposition to the regime. Ankara does not raise objections as strongly as in the past, but it has not explicitly said Assad’s departure has ceased to be a priority.

The parties have agreed to hold Geneva 8 in September. There will be a preparatory meeting in Astana toward the end of August. The opposition delegations will continue consultations to bridge the gap between their respective positions, and to form a unified front for Geneva 8.

Another important meeting was held in Geneva, coordinated by Randa Kassis, founder and president of the Movement of the Pluralistic Society and a member of the opposition Syrian National Council. The meeting was held in two parallel sessions, one on the drafting of the constitution, the other on the de-escalation zones. The participants represented opposition groups operating in Syria and abroad.

Most of them were well prepared and expressed their views coherently. Not all their platforms may be represented in the official Geneva process, but such seminars contribute extensively to better understanding various aspects of a political settlement in Syria. Such a settlement is not yet in sight, but efforts are inching in the right direction.

Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).