Syria talks may surprise by meeting the low bar of expectations

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No breakthrough was promised at Syria peace talks in Geneva, and no breakthrough has occurred. But as the first U.N.-led talks in almost a year neared their end on Friday, neither side has walked away and both claim small wins.
Russia, seen as holding the balance of power, has met both sides behind the scenes, and Western diplomats expect the talks to conclude later on Friday with an “agreed agenda” and a plan for a return to the Swiss city later this month.
In eight days of talks, the warring sides have not negotiated face-to-face, but haggled over the agenda with U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura, who wants to discuss a new constitution, elections and reformed governance.
As the text was still being finalised, the opposition met de Mistura to ensure the process would focus squarely on “political transition”, Western diplomats said.
Syrian government negotiator Bashar al-Ja’afari wants “counter-terrorism” to be included on the agenda.
“There is movement from both sides. The difficulty is that the opposition wants to be sure how the question of terrorism will be dealt with and in what order,” one diplomat said.
“They need language that ensures the process is not hijacked by the government to distract from political transition. De Mistura has to ensure that both sides don’t feel trapped.”
The scope of the negotiation is much narrower than a year ago, when de Mistura also had to hear demands for a ceasefire and release of prisoners. A shaky ceasefire has been in place since December and separate talks in Kazakhstan, sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran, are dealing with military matters.
Past peace efforts have failed, often as a fractured opposition succumbed to pressure from events on the battlefield, having failed to penetrate Ja’afari’s steely intransigence.
The latest round rode out the fallout from a militant attack on two security offices in the city of Homs last Saturday that killed dozens and which de Mistura said was a deliberate attempt to derail the talks.
A Western diplomat said agreement was near but it was the “final sprint and it can still derail”.
“I think the regime would do anything to get out of it as long as they can blame the other side like they tried yesterday (Thursday),” he said.
Russian diplomats met representatives of Syrian armed groups late on Thursday, diplomats and opposition sources said, the second contact in days between Moscow and the opposition, whom Assad’s government regards as terrorists.
Despite those contacts, Russia accused the main opposition of trying to sabotage the talks by refusing to unite with two smaller dissident groups which have no military muscle but have Moscow’s blessing as opposition voices.
Jihad Makdissi, head of the dissident “Cairo group” at the talks, said he met de Mistura on Friday. He said he expected an agreement on the agenda, format and date for a next round of talks, but that the U.N. envoy would clarify later.
Creating a unified opposition delegation is seen as the key to holding face-to-face talks. But a second Western diplomat said Russia’s push to unify the opposition was an underhand tactic.
“Russia is trying to do that to destabilize the talks. They insist on the opposition becoming one. This is a tactic to weaken the process. I hope that Staffan can push back on it.
A new round of Astana talks is due on March 14, and Russian officials have said the Geneva negotiations could resume on March 20.

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