Separate rounds of talks seek an elusive Syria peace deal

Separate rounds of talks seek an elusive Syria peace deal
"Last hope" Syria peace talks kick off in Vienna as Russia pushes parallel negotiations in Sochi.
2 min read
25 January, 2018
The Sochi peace talks are hosted by Assad backers Russia and Iran (Getty)
As negotiators meet in Vienna on Thursday for two days of UN-backed talks over ending Syria's bloody war, Western diplomats are ratcheting up the pressure for a solution - even as Russia pushes its own round of peace talks.

French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Wednesday that the Vienna meeting, after several failed rounds held in Geneva, was the "last hope" for reaching a political solution.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin has been waging a parallel diplomatic offensive, with a new round of talks at the Black Sea resort of Sochi set for January 30.

Ahead of the Vienna meeting, officials from the United States, France and Britain, along with Saudi Arabia and Jordan, gathered in Paris on Tuesday to sharpen their response to the Russian initiative.

"The United Nations has to be put back in the middle of the game. There is no question of letting the Geneva process be hijacked, diverted or bypassed," a French diplomatic source said.

Is the US in the picture?

Washington, which has largely been absent in the peace process under President Donald Trump, has signalled a shift in recent weeks.

"America wants to play the Syria card in its dealings with Russia and to respond to the growing influence of the Iranians," said Hasni Abidi, director of the Cernam centre for Arab studies in Geneva.

The US now says it will keep its roughly 2,000 soldiers in Syria to counter Iran's influence and until Assad is no longer in power.

"A conflict of interests between Moscow and Washington is inevitable. Each will obviously try to minimise the role of the other in ending the crisis," said Kourtov.

What progress is possible in Vienna?

"What's certain is that the ability of Russia to bring the Syrian regime to the negotiating table will be tested in Vienna," a European diplomatic source said.

It's unclear, however, if Assad, having retaken Aleppo in 2016, will want to negotiate, especially if he feels confident of winning back Idlib, the last major province held by rebel forces.

Diplomats also note that Tehran has little to gain from a political resolution.

But risks for Syria remain, as seen by Turkey's incursion into the country to pursue Kurdish rebels it considers a terrorism risk.

"The Geneva process is not dead," said Fiodor Loukianov, a Russian political analyst.

"Russia's prestige will depend on how this process evolves, and only the UN can provide legitimacy for any deals that are reached."