Representatives for Syria’s primary opposition group, the Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC) have announced that will not be attending this week’s Russian-sponsored Syrian peace talks in Sochi. The talks – being held in parallel to the United Nation’s own talks in Vienna – have been dismissed by a spokesman for the SNC, Nasr al-Hariri, who has accused Russia of attempting to facilitate a political solution to the ongoing civil war favourable to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The announcement comes at a difficult time for the ongoing peace process in Syria. While terror groups like the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra have been beaten out of swathes of territory they captured in the war’s incipient stages, violent conflicts between the Syrian government-Russian coalition, opposition forces and proxies supported by Iran and Turkey have pushed the civil war into what will be its seventh year.
Previous peace talks have failed to produce more than temporary ceasefires, with the Syrian government and various opposition groups failing to reach an agreement on a political solution to hostilities at any of the high-level talks sponsored by the U.N. since the war began. At the core of these failures has been a fundamental disagreement between the government regime and opposition groups regarding Syria’s political destiny. Opposition groups envisage a political solution of which the regime of President Assad is not a part, whereas the government considers a political solution that maintains its hold on power as the only acceptable outcome. Both the opposition and government – and their backers, the U.S. and Russia respectively – have consistently accused each other of frustrating the peace process for political gain.
While the Sochi talks have been praised by the U.N.’s Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura, many analysts have expressed doubt regarding Russia’s stated motivations for organising them. Omar Kouch, a Syrian political analyst interviewed by Al Jazeera, points out that the U.N.’s Geneva talks may have been a reasonably viable instrument for bringing hostilities to an end had it been given serious support by Russia. “If the Russians were serious about supporting the Geneva track,” he says “then they would have endorsed these things in Geneva by urging the regime to engage in the negotiation process.”
As Kouch points out, the civil war narrative being pushed in Sochi risks drawing the focus of the peace process away from eliminating the destructive effect of foreign military involvement through local proxies. Instead, he says, the war would be treated as “a matter of internal conflict” between opposition groups and the government regime, justifying the view that the conflict is best resolved between the parties as they are now: an opposition demanding a better government, and a regime willing to provide better government so long as it remains in power.
As compelling as the case for ousting a regime famed for its abuses of human rights even before the civil war is, this may not even be a strategically viable option under the present circumstances. As pointed out in a Foreign Policy article covering the talks earlier last year, Syria’s mainstream opposition has virtually ceased to exist. Despite the claims of groups like the SNC, there no longer exists a coherent opposition ready to replace the government regime should Assad abdicate.
It is clear, however, that Syria’s warring factions and their international backers cannot afford to be picky. Every day that Syria’s civil war grinds on, it edges deeper into an unmitigated humanitarian catastrophe. Over 500,000 people have been killed by the war, and an approximate 6.9 million civilians displaced. While President Assad’s brutal regime has lost all legitimacy by his flagrant disregard for human rights, the temporary continuity of his rule prove a necessary evil to avoid the continued slaughter of Syrian people – at least in the interim.
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