Syria peace talks: Hyped as crucial, downplayed

MONTREUX, Switzerland — In nearly the same breath, the world’s most powerful diplomats have talked about the importance of this week’s peace conference on Syria and downplayed expectations for a breakthrough.

The timeframe for the talks is a week to 10 days, and then a break — but for what, and for how long?

Syria’s Western-backed opposition and President Bashar Assad’s handpicked representatives have never spoken face-to-face and it’s not at all clear how much either side — or their proxy powerbrokers — really want an end to the war. A look at the goals of the participants and how the conference, which opens Wednesday, could unfold.

WHAT’S AT STAKE

Fighting in Syria has killed more than 130,000 people and left millions of refugees, either in camps or squats in neighboring countries or within Syria’s borders. The economy has been devastated, and bombs and gunfire have ruined once-thriving cities. The rebellion started in March 2011, and Syria has seen little but violence ever since. The contrast for the peace conference in the Alps town of Montreux could hardly be more stark — Switzerland has stayed out of international conflict since 1815, when it was declared neutral at the end of the Napoleonic wars.

The dichotomy isn’t lost on Syrians suffering from the war. The government carried out airstrikes across the country on Tuesday, including in Daraa province in the south, outside the capital, Damascus, in Homs province in central Syria and in Aleppo in the north. The deadliest of the attacks hit opposition-held areas of Aleppo, killing at least 10 people.

For some of the more than 2 million Syrian refugees scattered around the region, there was scant interest in a settlement with Assad’s government.

“We lost our faith in the international community. We don’t care about the Geneva conference and whether it takes place or not,” said Ibraheem Qaddah, a former rebel fighter with an amputated arm, now holed up in Jordan’s sprawling Zaatari refugee camp. “We have lost a lot of relatives and friends and family members in the fighting, and we’ve lost Syria.”

NEW LEADERSHIP? UNLIKELY THIS TIME AROUND

Syria’s Western-backed Syrian National Coalition wants a transitional government to replace Assad, reiterating Tuesday that it finally decided to attend the peace conference in order to establish a transitional government with full executive powers “in which killers and criminals do not participate.”

That’s the stated goal of the peace conference, agreed upon by international powers in preliminary talks in June.

But Assad, whose soldiers have notched up recent military victories, points to the ascendance of Islamic militants to temper Western enthusiasm for the rebels. He has said he has no intention of stepping down and, on the contrary, may run again as president later this year.

Still, by agreeing to meet them, Assad for the first time has acknowledged an opposition that he has long derided and dismissed as “terrorists” and “mercenaries.”

CEASE-FIRES, HUMANITARIAN CORRIDORS, PRISONER EXCHANGES

“We must take small steps,” Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, said in Paris on Tuesday.

A comprehensive end to the war in Syria is probably not possible, but smaller goals may be achievable.

Syria’s government last week proposed a cease-fire in the embattled city of Aleppo and a prisoner exchange with the opposition, but left the terms vague. The opposition has accused the government of reneging on promises before and declaring cease-fires in order to buy time. There are also questions as to whether a truce is remotely possible in a devastated city where scattered rebel groups have been locked for months in a stalemate with government troops.

Prisoner exchanges pose similar problems: With no unified command, the prospect of pulling together a rebel database of those detained seems impossibly remote. And Assad’s government operated secret prisons for years, if not decades, before the fighting started. That doesn’t preclude small exchanges and — as Steinmeier said — small steps are the first goal.

Humanitarian corridors would seem a likely starting point, but as one rebel brigade after another has fallen away from the Syrian National Council, it’s unclear how the shrinking umbrella group could enforce any agreement it reaches. The rebels could benefit — if they can be persuaded not to seize the supplies for their own forces, and resolve with the government who polices the routes and guarantees the safety of the police.

HOW IT COULD UNFOLD

The first direct talks between the opposition and the government are scheduled to start in Geneva on Friday. News agencies in Russia, which is spearheading the talks along with the United States, said those discussions are expected to last seven to 10 days, then break for a short time.

The reports did not specify the purpose of the break, its duration or how talks could resume. But any agreements reached between the two sides would have to be thoroughly vetted. In the case of the Syrian opposition, that will be complicated by defections and its total inability to influence fighters within Syria.

For a recent comparison, the Dayton peace talks that ended the Bosnian war in 1995 took place over 21 days under far more auspicious circumstances, where the leaders were looking for political cover for a war they wanted to end. In Syria, neither side is looking for — or expecting — a quick end to the fighting. And the fighting has evolved into a proxy war between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, as well as touching on post-Cold War tensions between Russia and the United States.

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