There had been hopes that the talks could begin this month, but after nine hours of discussions in Geneva with representatives from the permanent U.N. Security Council members and several regional states, U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi announced that would not happen, citing divisions in the opposition.
“We were hoping that we would be in a position to announce a date today; unfortunately we are not,” he told reporters. “We are still striving to see if we can have a conference before the end of the year.”
Well over 100,000 people have been killed during the conflict that began in March 2011, and the U.N. said this week that the proportion of Syrians in need of humanitarian aid has reached 40 percent, or 9.3 million people.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. had gone into the talks with Brahimi and the other governments still hopeful of a November date.
The issues were “complicated,” she said.
Several issues have dogged the initiative from the time Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov first announced plans for a “Geneva II” conference last May.
The major hurdle is the divide between the regime and opposition over a future role for President Bashar Assad, while the question of whether Iran should be a party at the talks also remains a point of contention.
The aim of the proposed conference is to implement a peace plan drawn up by world powers in Geneva in June 2012 – “Geneva I” – which called for the establishment of a transitional governing body on the basis of regime and rebel representatives’ “mutual consent.”
The Geneva I communique was intentionally vague about Assad’s future. The U.S. argues that, self-evidently, the opposition would not give its consent to Assad playing any role; Moscow show no signs of wanting to abandon its ally.
Furthermore, Russia sees Iran, Assad’s closest ally, as an obvious key player, one that together with Russia itself will counterbalance countries that support the rebels, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Lavrov on Tuesday repeated Russia’s desire to have Iran at the table.
But the U.S. has portrayed Iran role in the conflict as a pernicious one and is leery of Iranian participation in the envisaged talks. Administration in recent days have stressed that those who participate are expected to subscribe to the terms of the Geneva communique, noting that Iran has not done so.
If anything, the sides have been hardening their positions.
After assuring Brahimi during recent discussions that it would attend the talks without preconditions, the regime on Monday reiterated that Assad has no intention of leaving.
“President Bashar al-Assad will remain head of state,” said Information Minister Omran Zoabi, advising those who expected differently that they were “dreaming.”
On Tuesday, Assad advisor Bouthaina Shaaban told Russian television the government was “legitimate and elected,” and representative of the Syrian people.
On the rebel side, meanwhile, Syrian National Coalition (SNC) president Ahmad al-Jarba told Arab League foreign ministers that the opposition would not attend the Geneva talks if there was no clear timeframe for Assad’s departure. He also said Iran should not take part.
The Arab League issued a strong statement of support for Geneva II, urging the opposition to prepare a delegation under the SNC to attend the talks.
But Brahimi’s tacit admission of failure Tuesday signaled that the Arab ministers’ push had not succeeded in getting the process sufficiently on track for a start date to be announced.
No wholesale purge of ruling party members envisaged
During a visit to Poland on Tuesday, Kerry was asked about the Syrian regime’s newly-restated position on Assad.
In his reply he drew a distinction between Assad personally, and his regime.
“Well, the words ‘regime’ and individuals, and this and that, get confused in this process. The Assad regime knows full well that the purpose of Geneva II is to implement Geneva I,” he said, and noted Geneva I’s reference to “mutual consent.”
“I don’t know how anybody believes the opposition is going to give mutual consent to Assad to continue.”
Later, a senior U.S. official in a background briefing in Geneva made a similar point, also suggesting that some regime figures may be deemed acceptable to the opposition.
“I think that if there are people in the Syrian government, Syrian institutions who do not directly have blood on their hands, this is not a situation where anyone is looking for something like occurred in Iraq with the de-Baathification.”
“In fact, we want to make sure that institutions that are functioning, that are providing services for people can continue.”
(“De-Baathification was the U.S. policy of removing members of the ruling part from government posts after the toppling of Saddam Hussein.)
On the timing of Geneva II, the official said the U.S. was “very hopeful that this conference will take place before the end of the year.”
“I’m not at all disappointed,” the official said in response to a question about the failure to set a date. “If it takes the opposition coalition a few more weeks to prepare themselves in the way they feel they need to, to be full partners, full delegation, at a conference, then we want to support them to do that.”
On Iranian participation, the official conceded that Russia and “many people” want Iran to take part, but noted, again, that Iran has not committed itself to the Geneva I communique – something the U.S. believes everyone wanting an invitation to Geneva II should do.