RD WEBCAST: With the first round of Syrian peace talks in Moscow now complete and the second on their way in March, talk is of how to adjust the “Moscow format” to produce a final settlement to the Syrian crisis.

A Kurdish sniper sits among the rubble in the Syrian city of Ain al-Arab, also known as Kobani. Photo: AP

The Geneva format for Syrian peace talks was supposed to pave the road to a comprehensive agreement and, ultimately, a settlement of the Syrian crisis. However, the last meeting in Geneva, which took place a year ago, delivered almost zero results and left the conflict without foreseeable hope for future settlement. In response, Russia’s Foreign Ministry invited Syrian opposition leaders and the Syrian government to sit down and discuss the issues in Moscow from Jan. 26-29.

The Syrian peace talks in Moscow resulted in a lot of discussion and speculation around the prospects of the new “Moscow format” and its ability to create a basis for peace talks that will ultimately lead to the resumption of the Geneva talks. Although the Syrian opposition and the Syrian government agreed on 11 “Moscow principles” that could become a platform for a future round of talks, there are still many more questions to discuss and issues to resolve.

On Jan. 30, Russia Direct hosted a webcast on the outcomes of the Syrian peace talks in Moscow. The webcast featured Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations; Nir Boms, research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University; Alexander Shumilin, director of the Center for the Analysis of Middle East Conflicts of the Russian Academy of Sciences; and Khaled Yacoub Oweis, fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

The discussion centered on the outcomes of the Syrian peace talks in Moscow and the prospects of finding a path to reconciliation. Participants unanimously agreed that this conference was a positive move towards a final settlement. However, some of them also expressed skepticism about the future of this format and its ability to deliver any feasible results in the end.

Daniel Levy opened the discussion by arguing that the main problem of the conference was the lowering of expectations by the Russian hosts of the talks. However, as he pointed out, “Anything that gets the regime and opposition into a room is worth encouraging.

He also noted, “There was perhaps a sense, and perhaps that sense was misplaced from the beginning, that given the absolute political stalemate and paralysis, given a sense that the ISIS challenge may have changed the dynamic somewhat, that you could of got a degree of opposition buy-in to this talks that could allow these talks to somehow generate at least a glimmer of hope for a political path forward.” He continued that the attendance of the National Coalition could lead the talks to a new peace effort; however, he stressed there was an understanding in Moscow that was not going to be the case.

“I am not sure that there is a real headline other than that a meeting took place in Moscow. Some of the opposition was there… This could continue, but unless it is upgraded significantly, I do not think we are at a new place.”

He also stressed that, in its current composition, the next round of the “Moscow format” talks, which is scheduled for the beginning of March, is not going to deliver any further results. There is predictably not enough buy-in from a broad enough set of opposition actors to deliver more results.

Alexander Shumilin highlighted that, “The most important is, as in many cases, the process, which is not less important than the result.” He underscored the importance of the format proposed by the hosts of the talks – “to invite representatives of the opposition in their personal capacities to get rid of organizations, slogans and political programs” to avoid the war of declarations (which was the case during the Geneva talks) and to be able “to find common points” and agree on the basis for further talks. Shumilin also agreed that, if representatives of the National Coalition would join the next round of talks, their presence would give more legitimacy to the format.

Nir Boms argued that the Moscow meetings, like other meetings, “reflect the sad reality of division among the opposition, a reality of the lack of coercive leadership. And it is very hard to reach results in this reality.” He reminded that the Syrian conflict is a “proxy war,” which therefore needs a “proxy peace.” This, in turn, requires an effort from international backers of the respective groups to make that peace possible.

Echoing Dr. Boms, Daniel Levy posed a good question: “Can the external backers of the different parties deliver the sides who they are backing to make concessions?” He offered his understanding, arguing that, “The premise of international diplomatic efforts should be the following: that a key driver of the Syrian conflict is the role external powers and their ability to get their allies pulled back from the brink. And it is not clear if Moscow, Tehran, Washington, Ankara, Riyadh or Doha can really impose their will on their allies.”

Khaled Yacoub Oweis looked at the Syrian peace talks from a different level: Although he agrees that the Syrian opposition is disintegrated, he argued that the Moscow meetings helped to bring some unity not just to those who attended, but also to those who did not. He argued further that Russia, by hosting the talks in Moscow, “did try in a way to have its own opposition just as it thinks the U.S. has its own opposition.”

However, Oweis remained skeptical about the results and prospects of the talks: “I do not think that results of the Moscow talks, the declaration of principles, will encourage anyone else to join. Just very simply, if Russia had put some pressure on the regime to release, e.g. a hundred prisoners or just any gesture towards the opposition, that would help… but there is none of that.”

Speaking about the prospects of the Moscow format, Dr. Shumilin stressed that the first stage of the talks was of a preparatory nature and was not aimed at a breakthrough or comprehensive agreement. This gives hope that the second stage of the talks will involve members of the National Coalition, which will help to move the peace process forward.

In conclusion, Dr. Boms pointed out that Russia, which is aligned with the Syrian regime, pushes its own interests, as does the West and all respective parties involved in the conflict. This complicates the conflict even more. “This makes the Moscow format look like an attempt to push a process which will ensure both the regime and the Russian interests. This is certainly valid because other sides are doing the same things.”

To summarize, the participants agreed that the Moscow format is certainly a good initiative that makes the Syrian opposition and regime sit down and talk in one room. However, given the complexity and the length of the conflict, it is natural to expect numerous obstacles on the way to comprehensive negotiations. With “Moscow I” just finished and with “Moscow II” on its way, international backers have to push their proxies towards certain concessions to show each other their constructive intentions and willingness to negotiate in good faith.