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What’s next for Syria’s peace process?

A Syrian woman holds a placard which reads ‘boycott because you are a human being’ during a protest against the presidential elections in Idlib, Syria, May 2021. Voting was held in the government-controlled provinces but not in rebel-held northwestern Idlib province where around three million people are living. (Credit: Keystone/EPA/Yahya Nemah)

Talks between Syria’s government and the opposition in Geneva last week were described as a “big disappointment” by UN special envoy Geir Pedersen after they failed to reach consensus on drafting a new constitution.

The sixth round of talks between the Syrian Constitutional Committee in two years, the meeting was held in the hope of finding common ground between the country’s warring factions, whose representatives have a mandate to draw up a new legal framework that would then lead to UN-supervised elections.

But after an optimistic start, with the two sides meeting in person for the first time ever, the talks ended in an all-too familiar stalemate. Geneva Solutions spoke to Dr Sara Hellmüller, a senior researcher at the Graduate Institute in Geneva who has worked closely on Syria’s peace process, to find out what the next steps might be.

Geneva Solutions: Were you surprised that no progress was made?

Sara Hellmüller: Of course, hope is always strong, but I was not surprised at how the talks went. I think the meeting between the co-chairs and also the fact that they initially agreed on the methodology and engaged in discussions on how to draft the constitution marked some progress. Geir Pedersen called the last day “a big disappointment”, but he also said that the other days went “rather well”. However, no agreement could be found on some common text or on how to move forward and a date for the next meeting was not set as was the case also in previous sessions. This is disappointing.

GS: What are some of the main obstacles holding talks back?

SH: Research shows that one of the main conditions for a peace process to show some progress is that the parties need to consent – they need to agree to come to the table and to engage and negotiate with the other party. If that is absent, the parties may indeed attend talks, but they may do so because of outside pressure or because they want to stall the process and gain time. This is actually what we have seen in recent times in the Syrian peace process, especially on the side of the Syrian government.

GS: Do you think the parties were ready to negotiate in “good faith” during this latest meeting?

SH: The parties have fundamentally opposed positions, which are very difficult to overcome. Mutual accusations are nothing new in the Syrian peace process. The government delegation accused the opposition of making proposals far from reality, while the opposition delegation accused the government of not negotiating in good faith. In such a deeply entrenched conflict we cannot expect miracles, even though I was still hoping for some more progress.

GS: What else is stalling Syria’s peace process?

SH: Another factor is the internationalisation of the conflict. The Syrian government and the opposition are the main conflict parties, but we cannot just look at them in isolation because regional actors and international actors are heavily involved as well, so consensus needs to be forged not just amongst the conflict parties but also amongst their allies.

This links to a factor related to the mediation itself that I see as one of the main obstacles for the Syrian peace process, namely the disunity amongst the P5 – the permanent five members of the UN Security Council [Russia, China, the United States, France, the United Kingdom]. Especially in conflicts where the parties don't necessarily give their consent to negotiate, it is of utmost importance that UN mediators are backed by a coherent UN Security Council strategy to have some leverage, and in Syria this has almost never been the case. The first UN Special Envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, actually mentioned this in his resignation speech – that he cannot compel the Syrian government, mostly, and also the Syrian opposition, to engage in a political process if powerful states are not backing him. When UN Security Council Resolution 2254 [calling for a ceasefire and political settlement in Syria] was adopted, it was a unique moment of coherence amongst the P5, but I think it's fair to say that it was neither proceeded nor followed by the same level of unity. That has really made the life of UN mediators on Syria very difficult because while they mediated between the conflict parties, they also needed to mediate between the P5 and other regional actors, so they have to multitask at many different levels.

GS: So what’s the next step?

SH: The constitutional committee should meet again when the obstacles which have led to the disappointments in this sixth meeting have been (even if only) partially lifted. In other words, even small signs of success, such as the first meeting between the two co-chairs or agreement on procedural principles, are needed in order to justify pursuing the current course on the one hand and to build trust and show good faith between the parties on the other hand. Of course, discussions will now need to be held on the methodology and on how to move forward, so that the parties can meet again as soon as possible in order not to lose any more time.

GS: The committee has a mandate to draw up a new constitution that would then lead to UN-supervised elections. How important are elections to building peace in Syria?

SH: Of course, elections often mark a very visible milestone and are seen as an important step or even the ‘crowning event’ of peace processes, but they can also have a negative impact. I think this is because firstly elections are moments of very high-level competition amongst political parties and their competitors, and may therefore spur rather than diminish conflict. So it's quite risky to have elections in contexts affected by armed conflicts.

Secondly, to be a viable step in a peace process, elections must be inclusive, free, and fair, because partial or rigged elections can incentivise more rather than less violence. So, again, they are not a guarantor for sustainable peace. In Syria, for instance, the safe return of Syrian refugees and IDPs as well as other issues guaranteeing inclusive and fair elections would need to be addressed first.

In other words, if elections are held, they must be organised when the conditions are ripe and when instruments are in place to ensure that any conflict that may come up during the elections can be resolved peacefully rather than by resorting to violence again.

GS: Fighting has escalated in parts of the country in recent months while the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate. Is it too soon to be pursuing a political solution?

SH: I do not think that it is too soon to be pursuing a political solution given that the conflict has lasted for more than a decade. To the contrary, a political solution should always be pursued alongside the efforts to alleviate the humanitarian suffering, as only a political solution will be able, in my view, to sustainably end the violence.