The “Geneva II” talks between warring sides in Syria aim to establish, as set out in the June 2012 Geneva Communiqué, a transitional government involving “both sides”, alongside a review of the Syria’s constitution and legal system.
The official Syrian opposition, the National Coalition for Syrian and Revolutionary Forces (SNC), at first refused to take part without a guarantee that President Bashar Assad would step down. On 18 January it relented.
The Syrian Government only agreed to talks, if they included ending “terrorism” and clarified terminology in the original communiqué.
Representatives of the Kurdish controlled areas of Northern Syria are absent. Since November, Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) has been under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The SNC’s Arab chauvinism makes it dismissive of the Kurds. And neither the US nor the UN has pushed for the Kurds to be represented. Meanwhile the government appears amenable to Kurdish demands in order to stop them fighting government forces.
Iran does not accept the Geneva Communiqué; its invitation to attend the talks was rescinded, after the SNC objected. The government asserts the conference will fail without its regional backer.
Both sides have now met face to face but have not spoken directly. Discussions on the release of prisoners and getting aid into the areas where fighting has led to a major humanitarian crisis are priorities for the UN. After negotiations food and medicine may be allowed into Homs. This will boost Assad’s position.
Aid arriving in Homs would amount to progress; the likelihood of any lasting political settlement is however zero.
Tensions between the Al Qaeda backed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), more moderate Islamists, and Kurdish groups are increasing.
After several weeks of fighting in the Syria-Turkey border town of Jarabulus, Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters believed they were on the verge of driving out ISIL. However a series of car bombings, one of which killed 33 women and children, was a disturbing reminder of the brutality of ISIL’s fighters.
In response to a FSA request for backup, over 100 ISIL fighters arrived, many dressed like FSA fighters in camouflage and began arresting and arbitrarily beheading civilians who they said had collaborated with the FSA. ISIL shot a further 40 people and took others in for questioning.
As hundreds more civilians now cross the border into Turkey, ISIL have stepped up bombings there, adding to the more than 130,000 people killed in the past three years, and severely worsening the refugee crisis. Many are now unable to reach camps in Turkey.
In an audio message posted online the ISIL put a call out to other rebels, particularly other Islamists, “the (Islamic) state is reaching out to you to stop fighting us, to focus on fighting the nusairiyah”. The Nusairiyah is the Shia sect that ISIL says the majority of the Syrian Government and Assad family belong to. The Sunni Islamists of ISIL and other rebels view such groups as cults and heretical to Islam.
The leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahri, has echoed the call for peace between rebels. Unity with ISIL can only be of a virulently anti-Shia, hardline Islamist and cold-blooded character.