The Syria conflict has recently resulted in a ceasefire, brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran. The peace talks are to resume in Geneva, after being abruptly cut off in 2016. As part of the talks, Russia wants the international community to foot the bill for reconstruction of Syria. Russia sees these reconstruction dollars as key to bolstering its faltering effort to resolve this six-year conflict.
European and Gulf states, angry at Russia’s military intervention on behalf of Assad, will only contribute if Moscow secures a peace settlement that will set terms for an eventual political transition, which means Assad would end up leaving the Syrian government.
The issue, which is expected to be raised at UN-backed talks, is part of a larger challenge of bringing the two sides closer to a political agreement. Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister in charge of Middle East issues, told a meeting of EU ambassadors in Moscow last week that the reconstruction of Syria would top the agenda very soon. Bogdanov told the meeting that “tens of billions of dollars” would be needed, but to expect “nothing” from Russia.
“The Russians really do not want to inherit a completely destroyed Syria – that’s a problem that would stick with them as long as Iraq has been haunting the Americans,” said a Middle East-based diplomat. Destruction from Russian air strikes were responsible for destruction in cities, such as Aleppo, meaning that an initiative from Russia for reconstruction could face resistance.
Federica Mogherini, the EU’s Foreign Policy Chief, is planning to host an international conference on Syria’s future in April.
“Mogherini would like to use that to put the EU in the forefront of shaping the debate on reconstruction. The UK and France are very cautious about rushing into something that isn’t going to hold and inadvertently propping up Assad,” said another European diplomat.
In the meantime, the delegates at the peace talks have been encouraged to cooperate and find a way to end the violence.
“I ask you to work together. I know it’s not going to be easy to end this horrible conflict and lay the foundation for a country at peace with itself, sovereign and unified,” said mediator Staffan de Mistura. He will be holding meetings to establish procedures for the talks, but he recognizes that there is work to be done before both sides could be brought back together for direct talks.
De Mistura also told the representatives that they had a joint responsibility to end the conflict that had killed thousands and displaced millions of Syrians. He has also described the negotiations as an uphill task, but they would be centered on UN Security Council resolution 2254, which calls for a new constitution, UN-supervised elections and transparent and accountable governance.
The ceasefire has opened a window of opportunity, but de Mistura admits it is shaky. However, he embraced the opportunity to see if there is a political road forward.
Both delegations are not showing signs of empathy with the other sides position. “We need direct talks to create empathy and trust in both sides. We still don’t know if it will be direct or proximity talks, but the government has given no indication it wants to talk directly, which inevitably shows how little they are committed to this process,” said one Western diplomat.
The lead negotiator for the opposition, Nasr alHariri, has also critised the role played by Iran and Iranian-backed militias, that along with Russia, are key Assad allies. “Iran is the main obstacle to any kind of political deal,” said Hariri, after accusing Tehran of being responsible for violations of the ceasefire.
The biggest challenge, according to de Mistura, is a lack of trust on both sides of the table. Fighting has continued even as the peace talks began, with Syrian jets bombing rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Deraa, and Hama provinces and insurgents firing rockets at government targets.