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A diplomatic groundhog day for Syrians around the table in Geneva?

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By Catherine Hardy  with Reuters
A diplomatic groundhog day for Syrians around the table in Geneva?

Delegates from Syria’s warring parties are arriving in Geneva for a fresh round of peace talks.

The negotiations – referred to by diplomats as “Geneva IV” are due to restart on Thursday, after a 10-month hiatus.

Analysts predict familiar disagreements are likely to resurface, despite massive changes in the military and political context – a case of diplomatic “Groundhog day”.

The changes

President Bashar al-Assad’s military advances, with Russian and Iranian help, have transformed the field of battle since the last UN talks broke up without progress in April 2016.

The political context is similarly unrecognisable.

There is new leadership in Washington and at the UN and tentative coordination between Turkey, Russia and Iran.

Changes – but no improvements?

A ceasefire is in place across most of Syria.

However, there has been little movement on the issues that dogged previous rounds of talks.

What the government wants

The government side is expected to stick with its view that the entire armed opposition are terrorists.

And, with Assad militarily stronger that he has been for years, it has the option of pressing home its advantage on the ground if it doesn’t get its way at the negotiating table.

“The opposition should understand that there are new realities on the ground in Syria and international changes – it is not like it was in 2011,” said pro-Assad Syrian parliamentarian Sharif Shehadeh.

“The circumstances, the (battlefield) has changed, the political situation has changed, so they need to go with a mindset of participation, not exclusion.”

What the opposition wants

The opposition will press for prisoner releases, the lifting of government sieges and, above all, for a political transition leading to the end of Assad’s rule.

“We are fully committed to the Geneva talks and prepared to discuss a political solution and transition. We cannot address the profound security threats..while Assad remains in power,” said Anas al-Abdah, the head of opposition Syrian National Coalition.

The opposition says Assad is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths.

His government blames the rebels for the bloodshed.

The government delegation will be led by Syria’s UN ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari.

The main opposition delegation will be headed by Nasr al-Hariri, a 40-year-old cardiologist from the southern province of Deraa.

What the UN says

UN mediator Staffan de Mistura summed up his mood as “determined” as he prepared for Syrian delegates to arrive on Wednesday.

He wants to focus on reforming the governance of Syria, introducing a new constitution and holding elections under UN supervision.

“We are not having any excessive expectations, let’s be frank,” Mistura told reporters.

Western diplomats say De Mistura is hopeful of bringing the opposing Syrian factions face-to-face.

This is contrary to last year, when he was forced to shuttle between them in “proximity talks” that proved to be fruitless.

New UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has played down expectations of a breakthrough.

“Peace is only possible when none of the parties to the conflict think they can win. I am not sure we are yet there in Syria,” Guterres said on Monday.

“I am afraid some might still think, and I think it is a total illusion, that they might win that war, so I am not optimistic about the short-term solution for the Syria crisis.”

UN Security Council Resolution 2254 carries full details of what is on the table at the talks.

Read it here

No direct role for external powers

Outside powers Russia and Iran, which back Assad, and Turkey and the US, which support his opponents, will have no direct role in the talks.

Stronger contacts between Russia, Turkey and Iran brought Syrian negotiators to talks in Kazakhstan in January and earlier this month.

However, the negotiations ended in disarray.