For eight days, the Syrian regime and an opposition delegation sat face-to-face, but were not on speaking terms in Room 16 of the Palais des Nations in the sprawling complex of United Nations headquarters in Geneva.
Round one demonstrated the bitter divide with no breakthrough on the core issues of a political transition or access to humanitarian aid.
So what comes next?
An agreement to continue the talks remains on hold. The opposition delegates pledged to return to the table in early February. Syrian government negotiators said they would confer with President Bashar Assad before committing to a date.
Despite the lack of progress, there were revealing moments in this seemingly intractable conflict.
The Media War
Both sides claimed to have won the media war in Geneva. But even critics of the intensely fractious Syrian opposition said that after a last-minute vote to attend the talks, the opposition delegation got high marks.
“The only surprising thing was the professionalism of the opposition,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center.
The pre-Geneva view was that the opposition coalition would lose any remaining credibility by taking part in the negotiations with the regime. But that was reversed as the delegates remained focused and calm despite regime provocations.
Western backers are now pushing the Syrian National Council to open new channels of communication to different opposition factions to boost credibility inside Syria and particularly with the Russians. The Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba is headed to Moscow next week for the first high-level talks with Russian officials, seen as a new sign of confidence and pragmatism.
No Deal On Aid
The biggest disappointment at the Geneva talks was over one particular failure. Western diplomats were convinced an aid convoy to a long besieged neighborhood in the central Syrian city of Homs would be a “quick win,” a confidence-building measure on the opening day.
Weeks before the talks, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Syrian aid groups had drawn up a detailed plan for aid convoys to roll into a rebel stronghold in the old quarter of Homs, encircled by regime forces for more than a year, where living conditions for some 3,000 civilians and rebels are dire.
At first, Syria’s U.N. ambassador, representing the regime in the talks, said he had no information on the plan, according to sources close to the talks. He then offered a deal-breaker: The Syrian regime would allow safe passage for women and children, but insisted rebels hand over a list with the names of all the men.
U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, said he was extremely disappointed that a formula for aid convoys into Homs was beyond reach at the end of the first week of talks.
Joshua Landis, who writes an influential blog on Syria, says the regime pulled back on the deal after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in his opening remarks, explicitly called for the Syrian president to step down.
“His insistence that Assad had to go stunned the delegation,” said Landis.
The description of U.S. policy ahead of the talks was of constraining Assad rather than removing him, according to a consensus of Washington analysts and administration officials. Landis says that Kerry changed the rules of the game on opening day.
“The only thing Kerry’s got is the bully pulpit and he stood up and said, ‘No, I am not going to make a deal.’ It was a war cry,” he says.
Shaeikh disputes the description of the tough opening remarks. “Kerry reassured the opposition and he reassured allies,” Shaeikh says. “I would call him the MVP of Geneva.”
The Fighting Goes On
No one disputes that the war will go on.
The opposition says more than 1,900 Syrians were killed during the talks, including 433 civilians. A Syrian aid group said 42,000 refugees fled Syria during the talks. Regime war planes pounded the Damascus suburb of Darayya with barrel bombs while negotiators were at work.
The crude weapons are rolled out of helicopters over rebel areas and often devastate civilian neighborhoods. When asked about the tactic, Syria’s foreign minister Walid Moallem was reported as saying, “How do you want us to respond to terrorists? Send them an SMS message?”
Expectations for a breakthrough in Geneva are low, but in interviews with diplomats following the talks, it is clear there is no Plan B if negotiations fail.
“Geneva is the best worst idea,” explained a Western diplomat.
After a week of talks, Brahimi is nowhere near finding common ground on the contentious issue of a transitional government by “mutual consent,” which is the basis for the negotiations. Assad insists he won’t step down; the opposition demands his departure.
When Brahimi was asked how he was going to square this impossible circle, he quipped to a room full of journalists, “Ideas? I”ll take them with great pleasure.”