A new round of Syrian peace talks, known as Geneva III, was supposed to begin on January 25 but ended up being postponed to January 29. Now that the day has arrived, they’re still not quite ready to begin—but UN envoy Staffan de Mistura is putting on a brave face. He has already met with the Syrian government delegation headed by President Bashar al-Assad’s UN representative Bashar al-Jaafari, but other invitees remain absent.

The reasons for these delays are complex, but the primary issue is a dispute over who should be allowed to represent the Syrian opposition and perhaps whether it is useful to think in terms of a single Syrian opposition at all. Opposition groups and individuals who participated in the December Riyadh meeting as well as Russian-backed individuals have been invited in various capacities, while so far Kurdish groups are excluded. And while no one expects any significant progress toward a resolution of the Syria conflict to emerge from the meetings, de Mistura is hard at work trying to establish Geneva III as a framework for conflict management and the mitigation of Syrians’ horrific suffering.

The High Negotiations Committee

In preparation for the talks, some of the governments seeking President Assad’s ouster tried to unite the Syrian opposition behind a joint delegation at a conference in Riyadh in early December. The meeting gathered exiled politicians, armed rebels, hardline Islamist groups, military defectors, and dissidents so moderate that they’re still allowed to reside in Damascus. However, the talks excluded salafi-jihadi extremists like al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and, of course, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, as well as the biggest group of Syrian Kurds. (More on that below.)

Not all of the remaining rebel factions endorsed the Riyadh meeting. Mohammed Talal Bazerbashe, who is the general commander of Jaish al-Sham, an Islamist group, recently related to me a long list of objections to the Riyadh conference, including the presence of Russia-friendly groups and what he considered to be watered-down political demands. Like many Syrian opposition members, Bazerbashe also insisted that there can be no meaningful talks unless the United Nations first persuades the “murderous, criminal, and sectarian regime” to lift its sieges and stop bombing Syrian cities.

Citing similar objections, one of Syria’s most powerful Islamist groups, Ahrar al-Sham, which was present in Riyadh, ultimately refused to endorse the agreement. Still, Ahrar al-Sham has followed the process from the sidelines and seems to remain interested in the Geneva talks despite its official boycott and continued hardline rhetoric.

Even with some groups absent, the Riyadh delegates were still a broadly based group, far more representative of the Syrian opposition than any previous conference. At the conclusion of their talks they elected a High Negotiations Committee (HNC), led by former Syrian prime minister Riyadh Hijab, which would be tasked with appointing and supervising a team of diplomats for the Geneva III talks.

On January 20, the HNC unveiled its negotiating team led by Asaad al-Zoubi (a defected major general from a major Sunni Arab clan in southern Syria), George Sabra (a Marxist dissident from a Christian family in the Damascus region) and Mohammed Alloush (of the powerful Sunni Islamist group known as the Islam Army, from Douma east of Damascus). The rest of the team reportedly included:

  • Haitham al-Maleh
  • Mohammed Sabra
  • Ahmed al-Hariri
  • Fouad Aliko
  • Colonel Abdelbaset Tawil
  • Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed Abboud
  • Soheir al-Atassi
  • Basma Kodmani
  • Alice Mafraj
  • Abdelmajid Hammou
  • Khalaf Dahoud
  • Mohammed Attour
  • Nadhir al-Hakim

However, the HNC delegation soon ran up against Russian objections and angry protests from the Kurdish groups that had been excluded.

The Council of Democratic Syria

In parallel to the Riyadh conference in December a group of Syrian Kurdish politicians, military commanders, and their allies attended a rival meeting in northeastern Syria’s Hasakah Governorate.

Most of the groups present were affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, a U.S.-backed military alliance against the Islamic State in eastern Syria, though it also fights against a mixture of Islamist and Western-backed rebel groups north of Aleppo. The main component of the SDF is a Syrian Kurdish militia known as YPG, which is a Syrian front for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

At the Hasakah conference, which also included other invitees, a new political umbrella body was created to operate as the political wing of the SDF. Haitham Mannaa, a secular leftist Arab, and Ilham Ahmed, a Kurdish politician from a PKK-friendly group, were elected co-presidents of the group. Confusingly, it has used many different English names and acronyms, including the Democratic Syrian Assembly (DSA), but now seems to be settling on the Council of Democratic Syria, or CDS for short.

Including the CDS in the talks would seem natural, as its military wing, the SDF, is one of the dominant forces in northern Syria. But the links between the CDS and the PKK have predictably raised Turkish objections. Since the United States needs Turkey’s help in bringing other opposition groups to the table, U.S. diplomats have felt compelled to toe the Turkish line on this issue, even though they would certainly prefer to have the Kurds in the talks. (When the same Kurdish groups, then using different names, were excluded from a previous round of peace talks two years ago, they raised hell in the media and tried to undermine the meetings.)

The rest of the opposition gathered in Riyadh has also been strongly opposed to any CDS/SDF participation. They view the SDF as a regime proxy, pointing to the maintenance of government offices inside Kurdish-controlled regions and some HNC-aligned factions are in fact at war with the SDF in areas north of Aleppo. Though nearly all of the conference delegates gathered in Riyadh in December were Arabs, the HNC also insists that PKK-aligned factions should not have a monopoly on representing Kurdish Syrians. As evidence to the contrary, they point to the inclusion of well known Kurdish dissidents such as Fouad Aliko of the anti-PKK Kurdish National Council in the Turkish- and American-backed HNC delegation. But while this proves that Kurds are not being excluded from the talks simply for being Kurds, there is no disputing that the SDF is a major power on the ground and that its exclusion will limit the reach of the negotiations inside Syria.

The Russian Factor

Meanwhile, Russia has been pushing for the inclusion of its own favorite dissidents. Despite being allied with Bashar al-Assad, the Russians were granted a minor stake in the creation of the HNC at the Riyadh conference in December through the inclusion of small secular groups widely seen as beholden to Moscow. This outraged many hardline dissidents and Islamists, but the United States and others apparently insisted on including such groups to secure a Russian buy-in.

Yet, when the Geneva talks approached, the Kremlin suddenly raised its demands by also trying to pack the opposition side of the talks with additional Russian allies. A Russian list was presented, from which Staffan de Mistura was encouraged to pick names to include in the HNC delegation. The list included people such as the Moscow-based former Syrian deputy prime minister Qadri Jamil, a close Kremlin ally. But the HNC refused to make any additions to its own delegation and it rejected the presence of either Jamil or other candidates proposed by Russia or the CDS at the talks, saying they did not genuinely represent the Syrian opposition.

The Russians then appear to have shifted their position slightly. Haitham Mannaa, the CDS leader, had initially denounced Moscow’s proposed delegates as a ”non-Syrian list,” but, he told me on Thursday, the Russians then relented and agreed to make common cause with him and the Kurds. This produced a combined CDS/Russian list of fifteen names drawn from two projects to unite Russia-friendly, reformist, and anti-Islamist dissidents in 2015, based in Moscow (involving Russian and Syrian regime allies) and Cairo (involving Mannaa’s people and disaffected secular exiles), as well as the CDS’s own December conference in northern Syria (involving Mannaa’s allies and pro-PKK groups).

In the end, Staffan de Mistura tried to appease both Russians and Kurds by inviting their delegates to the talks as advisers and consultants, rather than as part of the two main delegations from the HNC and the Syrian government.

Of the fifteen people put forth on this combination list, ten have now received invitations as independent advisers. According to CDS member Maram Daoud, who spoke to me by telephone on Friday, the ten invitees are:

  • Haitham Mannaa (veteran leftist dissident, Daraa)
  • Qadri Jamil (former deputy prime minister)
  • Fateh Jammous (veteran Alawite leftist dissident)
  • Salim Kheir-Bek (veteran Alawite dissident)
  • Mazen Maghribiyeh (close to Jamil)
  • Randa Qassis (female Paris-based exile dissident)
  • Jihad Maqdessi (former government spokesperson)
  • Majed Habbou (Christian leftist, close to Mannaa)
  • Abbas Habib (Sunni Arab tribal leader from northeast Syria)
  • Nimr Suleiman (Assyrian Christian journalist)

(Of these ten, Jihad Maqdessi has since turned down the invitation, saying he does not want to stand in the way of negotiations and hopes to perhaps join the process later.)

Staffan de Mistura had by then bowed to Turkish, French, and perhaps U.S. pressure, and agreed not to send invitations to PKK-connected delegates. No Kurdish members received their invitations when the rest of the list did. This has, predictably, raised cries of protest from these groups, as well as from the PKK proper. Haitham Mannaa has threatened to boycott the talks along with his CDS allies.

“The Americans met with [Kurdish leader] Saleh Muslim in Lausanne and said that they want the Kurds to play a role, but not immediately,” claimed Mannaa when I spoke to him on Thursday. “For me, this argument is unconvincing. I have told the Americans clearly that we know that this is not your own opinion, it is Turkey’s opinion.”

The Riyadh Bloc Refuses to Budge

As if this wasn’t complicated enough, it is also proving difficult to bring the HNC delegation to the table. Already incensed by Russian attempts to stack the talks with more moderate or even Assad-friendly opposition delegates, by Kurdish attempts to lay claim to the moderate opposition label, and by the recent gruesome images of anti-Assad civilians being starved to death by government forces, the HNC has so far refused to move its people to Geneva.

“We won’t take part in any negotiations until our humanitarian demands are met,” wrote the HNC head, Riyadh Hijab, on Friday. The HNC has put forth a series of preconditions, including that the Assad government must stop starving and bombing civilians. Several pro-opposition governments have voiced sympathy for these demands, with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan commenting on Friday that “it will be difficult for the moderate Syrian opposition to attend the peace talks held in Geneva unless there is a ceasefire to end the Russian bombing of its combatants.”

It is hard to know how seriously to take such statements as both Erdogan and the opposition are well aware that however reasonable and justified such demands may be, they will not be met. Whether Assad is sending his diplomats to Geneva to negotiate a ceasefire or just to enjoy the spectacle of the opposition tearing itself apart, the Syrian president is not going to give anything away for free before the talks begin.

Still, the HNC has been stalling, perhaps hoping to wring some concession from its opponents or simply for fear of internal defections. “For certain we will not head to Geneva and there will not be a delegation from the High Negotiations Committee tomorrow in Geneva,” said George Sabra, the deputy head of the HNC delegation, on Thursday.

Sabra was right. As evening descended over Geneva on Friday, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura had only Bashar al-Jaafari’s government delegation to meet with. But considering how much their backers have invested in this process, it is unlikely that Sabra and the HNC bloc will be able to stay away for long. The proceedings aren’t going to start in earnest until next week so there is still time for the HNC bloc to show up—with or without a full team of diplomats.

The Staffan de Mistura Model

Having to wait a few days more wouldn’t be the end of the world, but the difficulty in convening the delegates is only a foretaste of how difficult it will be to start making meaningful deals. There has never been much reason to be optimistic about the Geneva negotiations, considering the intractable nature of the dispute and the bad faith evinced by both Syrian and regional actors.

But having a war with talks that achieve little is better than having a war without any talks, and de Mistura seems determined to seize the day and get the ball rolling. His strategy has been to postpone or circumvent conflicts about who is invited to represent whom, to avoid getting snagged on diplomatic formalities, and to give the parties as few reasons as possible to restart the game of non-recognition and mutual boycotts. At a press conference on January 25, the envoy was very explicit in saying that he is not trying to create a negotiation process on the Geneva II model, referring to the failed negotiations of spring 2014. This time, there will not be a government delegation and an opposition delegation sitting face to face across a table, and there won’t be any expectation of a deal on a political transition right away. That would be pointless because it would be guaranteed to fail.

Instead, de Mistura seems to be aiming to turn Geneva III into a mechanism for longer-term discussions on several tracks, which would allow for factions to interact in different constellations and on different topics. There will be quite a lot of simultaneous meetings taking place,” de Mistura explained at the press conference that he envisioned the process to last for something like six months. There are three diplomatic innovations at play here, which de Mistura hopes will help sustain the talks past the almost inevitably improductive first few meetings.

Reviving the working groups concept: The new version of the peace process is similar to the de Mistura’s former proposal for thematic working groups. He originally envisioned four such groups that would sound out Syrian actors on discrete issues, instead of trying to conclude one single peace-and-transition deal for all of Syria. Given the fractured nature of the political landscape he is expected to manage, this is a sound starting point.

Perhaps for political reasons, de Mistura denies that the current setup has anything to do with his working groups model, which the HNC-aligned opposition didn’t like, but he is still clearly taking a page from that playbook. Indeed, some of the structure he set up for the working groups plan still seems to be part of the process, including the four diplomatic facilitators appointed in September to assist him in organizing the working groups. The nature of their work may have changed, but not by much.

Proximity talks: Another ingredient in de Mistura’s model for Geneva III is what he refers to as “a staggered, chronological proximity approach.” What this means, translated from diplomatese, is that the various delegations aren’t expected to meet each other face to face across a table—at least not very often, in the early stages of the process.

Instead, they will be invited to comment on proposals put forth by the UN mediators and/or the other parties, who will then seek to identify potential common ground. The mediators could walk back and forth between rooms, let the rival delegations take turns coming to them, by shuttling back and forth from Syria, Turkey, Switzerland, or wherever they are based.

Informality: A third element is the idea of inviting delegates without calling them delegates, which was de Mistura’s way of getting around irreconcileable demands from Russians, Turks, and others. This is what happened with the Russian-backed delegates, who were called upon to join the talks as private individuals to advise de Mistura, rather than be invited en bloc as members of a formal delegation. The envoy has also hinted that he will be inviting representatives of civil society groups and Syrian women from across the political landscape to make sure that their views are not lost among the issues that the armed groups prefer to discuss.

Such a setup allows both the envoy and the other delegates to skirt questions of formal status, since controversial delegates will be invited individually and seated outside the two main delegations. As UN envoy, de Mistura can freely consult with anyone he likes without seeking the approval of other parties or defining exactly in what capacity he is meeting a Syrian invitee. He does not need to spend much time with someone whose importance in Syria is nil just because the Russians or Americans requested they be present, but he can certainly afford to make a courtesy call if that unlocks the participation of some other group or country.

Of course, de Mistura’s people could also quietly connect with people not physically in the conference venue and convey their opinions to other Syrian parties—say, Kurdish leaders left off the list because of Turkish obstructionism.

Instead of letting himself be trapped by the concept of one negotiating table and two delegations, de Mistura has created a flexible framework that allows him to approach, engage, and connect the rival parties as necessary. It is a structure that will initially look more like a collection of high-profile focus groups than a frank negotiation between warring parties, but hopefully it can allow de Mistura to seek progress where progress is possible and leave the logjams for later.

Lower Your Ambitions

Getting the talks started despite the problems described above will be tough enough. There is a terrible amount of rhetorical huffing and puffing on all sides. However, once the process is underway, the disputes will hopefully move to issues of more substance. By then, dull habit will have taken the sting out of having to meet your opponents in public and cold calculations of interest will start to affect the behavior on all sides. Many parties fear being excluded from the peace process and may eventually join or rejoin just to keep an eye on their opponents. There will certainly be walkouts and protests and pauses, and no deadlines are likely to be kept ever, but that's par for the course.

Even if no significant deals are reached and a ceasefire in all or part of Syria proves elusive, de Mistura will have achieved something by enshrining the Geneva process as a framework for conflict management. A “talk while you fight” arrangement won't end the war, but it can perhaps limit the human suffering, allow for constructive engagement across the frontlines on isolated issues, and pave the way for more meaningful political exchanges later on.

At least that seems to be the idea. Of course, any number of things could go wrong along the way, and what happens on the battlefield will, at the end of the day, be more important. But keep an eye on Geneva III, too.

UPDATE: Late on Friday evening, just as this piece was published, the HNC confirmed that it will indeed participate in the Geneva III talks.