The Geneva talks are over. Hosts, moderators and opposing sides in the complex and brutal civil war have gone their separate ways. Many critics, after suggesting the talks would collapse, were quick to pronounce the lack of pronouncements – but probe a little deeper and the value of these negotiations becomes apparent.
To place it in context, the gulf which divides Assad’s delegation and that of the Syrian opposition meant that most believed these would be “proximity talks” – meaning that the two sides would be in separate rooms with negotiators shuttling between them. It was therefore an achievement in its own right that face-to-face meetings were conducted thanks to the UN negotiator Lakhdar Brahimi, who managed to get everyone around the same table with discussions moderated through him.
Brahimi moved from topic to topic to try and find a breakthrough. In one session he discussed the potential handover of prisoners and in another the potential for humanitarian relief in the embattled city of Homs. Both sides presented papers setting out their thoughts on Syria’s future.
A key stumbling block is the future of Bashar Al-Assad. On this the opposition are on the strongest possible ground, as it was made clear to all participants – not least in the invitations from UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon – that the talks were to be based on the Geneva communiqué of 2012. This communiqué made clear that the purpose of the talks is to arrange a transition of power. The communiqué itself sets out that the objective is “a perspective for the future that can be shared by all in Syria” and to establish “clear steps according to a firm timetable towards the realisation of that perspective”. The requirement is for the “establishment of a transitional governing body with full executive powers”, which should be “formed on the basis of mutual consent”. This is clearly incompatible with Assad staying in power, as the Foreign Secretary stated in his remarks at the opening of the talks in Montreux. He reminded the audience, which included both sides, that since the Geneva meeting in 2012 another 110,000 innocent people have been killed and 2.3 million have had to flee. Mr Hague repeated his call that Assad had to stand aside, arguing for “a transitional governing body in Syria with full executive powers, formed by mutual consent, which means no one included without the agreement of the others, including a President who has destroyed his own legitimacy”.
The National Coalition, led by their President Ahmad Jarba, have an incredible task of uniting a disparate and complex network of opposition voices behind the desire to see Assad removed. But proposals for post-Assad governance are more advanced than the media gives them credit for. The sooner they are discussed in Geneva the better. The UN Human Rights Commissioner Navay Pillay recently said that there is evidence of war crimes linked to the highest levels of the regime. And the report last week from three former war crimes prosecutors, detailing photographic evidence of 11,000 dead bodies that had been tortured by the Assad regime, brought home the brutality of his rule in gruesome detail.
As both sides depart Geneva it’s commendable that the talks continued without the much feared collapse of negotiations. It is unlikely we will see immediate results. The final outcome could take months, possibly even years. But continuing this dialogue is arguably the best chance of eventually securing the transition to a new governing body which the country so urgently needs. The desperate plight of the Syrian people is too important for these talks to fail.