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The biggest surprise about Syria diplomacy

epaselect epa05155544 US Secretary of State John Kerry (C), Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria Staffan de Mistura (R) hold a press conference after the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) meeting in Munich, Germany, 11 February 2016. Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and UN envoy Staffan de Mistura had held nearly six hours of negotiations with European and Middle Eastern foreign ministers before announcing an agreement of a nationwide 'cessation of hostilities' in Syria, hours before the Munich Security Conference. The agreement will not apply to the Islamic State militant group, US Secretary of State John Kerry said.  EPA/SVEN HOPPE

The head of the Syrian opposition said he’s going to Geneva for the next round of U.S.-Russian-sponsored peace talks (being held today), even though the opposition rejects any future role for President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime will be the other party in the talks.
The Syria diplomacy might be described as “the art of the impossible,” borrowing the title of a collection of speeches by former Czech president Vaclav Havel, who helped negotiate the transition from communism to democracy in Eastern Europe. Similar impossibilities confront the peacemaking being attempted by Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.
The Syria peace train should have derailed weeks ago. The parties don’t agree on any major issue — they won’t even sit down in the same room — and the sponsors, Russia and America, remain rivals more than partners. Yet the locomotive keeps on chugging up the hill — largely because the alternative would be a disastrous plunge into the abyss of even deeper sectarian war.
Riyad Hijab, the Syrian former prime minister who heads the opposition steering group known as the “High Negotiations Committee” outlined his positions in a telephone interview on Friday. His key demand is a formula that removes Assad from power soon and instead gives authority to a transitional body. This is precisely the issue the U.S. and Russia had hoped to finesse by deferring the question of Assad’s future until after elections take place, in theory 18 months from now.
“We want a transitional body with full authority,” Hijab insisted. He said this would be his message to Staffan de Mistura, the U.N.’s special envoy for Syria, when the negotiations convene in Geneva on Monday. The Geneva meeting will feature what are known as “proximity talks,” with the two sides talking separately to the mediator, but not to each other.
Hijab said that attacks by Assad’s regime against the rebels have lessened, but haven’t ended, under the shaky ceasefire that took effect last month. “The war hasn’t stopped, but the rate of violence is less,” he said. Although some analysts have predicted that the talks will ultimately produce a federal Syria, Hijab said he rejected this outcome because it would be “the starting point to divide Syria.” He said this position was a “red line” for the opposition group he heads. “We support more decentralization, so local authorities have more power, but no federalism. Federalism will divide the whole area” into mini-states, to the benefit of Iran, he argued.
Given the impasse on big negotiating issues, some leaders in the Syrian opposition argue that the U.S. should concentrate on smaller steps that would build support for the moderate opposition and weaken the hold of extremists from the IS and Jabhat al-Nusra. Opposition leaders have urged the administration, for example, to force Assad to allow humanitarian relief for the besieged town of Darayya, in the northwest suburbs of Damascus. Gaining help for Darayya would bolster the U.S.-backed opposition’s standing among Syrians, it’s argued.
Rebel leaders also urge the U.S. to encourage NGOs to rush humanitarian supplies to areas in northwest Syria, near Aleppo and Idlib, where Jabhat al-Nusra had been strong but may be weakening. As the extremists lose local support, it’s argued, the U.S. should quickly help moderate groups to fill the vacuum.
The hardest problem for the opposition, now as for the past four years, has been that the key outside powers have differing agendas. The U.S. backs the Syrian Kurdish group known as the YPG, even though it’s the deadly enemy of Turkey, a NATO ally. The Kurds in recent weeks have been cleverly playing off the U.S. and the Russians, further complicating the Syrian campaign.
The biggest surprise about Syria diplomacy isn’t its success — there’s still precious little of that — but that it continues at all. That’s due chiefly to the persistence of Kerry and his team — and the exhaustion of the combatants.
—Washington Post Writers Group

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David Ignatius, best-selling author and prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post, has been covering the Middle East and the CIA for more than twenty-five years

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