The four-day Syrian peace talks in Moscow lacked any defining breakthroughs, but the “Moscow Principles” signed by participants on Jan. 29 could help build momentum for a future solution to the Syrian crisis.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, gesturing at center left, welcomes participants of the Syrian peace talks in Moscow, Jan. 28, 2015. Photo: AP

The four-day peace talks in Moscow between about 40 representatives of the Syrian opposition and the Syrian government concluded Jan. 29 with uncertain results. Participants signed 11 “Moscow Principles” and agreed to hold another meeting in the beginning of March, 2015. The format of the meeting suggests that Moscow and Damascus may be trying to establish a new political coalition inside Syria. 

The highly-touted conference on Syria kicked off in Moscow on Jan. 26, gathering 32 representatives of the Syrian opposition for a four-day meeting and subsequent talks with the representatives of the Bashar al-Assad government. Russia, the initiator and the host of talks, had been laying the groundwork for the meeting for the last four months. 

Starting in October, Russian officials, particularly Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Middle East envoy Mikhail Bogdanov, had been meeting with prominent Syrian opposition figures as well as government officials to negotiate terms of the Moscow talks. 

After the Geneva II conference spearheaded by the United States had failed to launch a peace process in the country in January 2014, the civil war in Syria took an even more violent turn, with the Islamic State becoming a major threat to stability. 

The Russian initiative, coming exactly one year after Geneva II, was dubbed Moscow I by some experts, although it has little in common with the Geneva format.

Tumultuous run-up to the talks

What Russia proposed was a two-day opposition meeting followed by two days of talks with Syrian government officials with no preconditions for attendees and no prearranged agenda. 

But what caused a lot of suspicion in Syria was the informal format of the gathering, in which opposition members would attend in a personal capacity but not as representatives of parties and coalitions. Several influential figures, particularly Muath al-Khatib and Hadi al-Bahra of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), turned down Moscow’s invitation partly because of this condition. 

The presence of the SNC, the main opposition group currently in exile, in Moscow would have taken the talks to a new level and could have led to a breakthrough.

The fractured opposition that made it to Moscow represented a wide political spectrum. Many, including the National Coalition, doubted the viability of the Moscow talks, calling the attendees the “Assad-tolerated opposition” that could just as well represent the Syrian government. 

These statements are indicative of an underlying problem that went through all previous peace talks: Attendees are not always representative of the Syrian people or specific groups that fight on the ground. 

According to some reports, there are hundreds of militias controlling portions of territory in Syria, who have no permanent gains of land and regularly switch alliances. While the Syrian government controls 45 percent of land, another 45 percent is under control of the Islamic State, the Nusra Front and the Kurds in the north.

The Islamic State and the Nusra Front are the two key groups that do not seek any peaceful process in Syria, but they are the ones that hold the key to it. 

Unlike the terrorist groups, the opposition attending the Moscow meeting hardly has real significance on the ground (a remarkable exception is Saleh Muslim Mohammed representing the Kurds who control the north of Syria). 

In his recent interview with Foreign Affairs, Bashar al-Assad made it clear that in his opinion the opposition has no weight with the people. “You have... personalities who only represent themselves; they don’t represent anyone in Syria. Some of them never lived in Syria, and they know nothing about the country,” he argues.

Assad emphasized that the meeting in Moscow “is not negotiations about the solution; it’s only preparations for the conference.” The Russian side upheld this position, with Foreign Minister Lavrov saying that no documents were to be signed at the meeting, but a clear understanding and contact between the government and opposition delegations was to be developed. 

Modest progress

The Moscow meeting saw signs of change as to how the opposition views the basics of the Syrian peace process, namely the 2012 Geneva I Communiqué that establishes a road map for ending violence in Syria. 

Reports on Jan. 28 suggested that the opposition had withdrawn the demand for immediate establishment of a transitional government, as outlined in the Geneva Communiqué, and Assad’s departure from power. The leader of the People’s Will Party Qadri Jamil was quoted as saying that the Communiqué had gaps and needed to be updated because in summer 2012 when it was agreed upon, terrorism was not a clear threat to everybody.

A similar position was expressed by the UN envoy to Syria at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Staffan de Mistura argued that the Geneva Communiqué is not up-to-date and should not necessarily serve as the basis of every discussion. “We didn’t have ISIS at the time of the Geneva Communiqué. It needs to be interpreted according to reality,” he was quoted as saying. The U.S. approach to the Syrian crisis may also be shifting as is reflected in President Barack Obama’s softer rhetoric on Assad recently. 

The actual talks between the opposition and the government that began on Jan. 28 saw some modest progress. The opposition prepared a ten-point plan aiming at defusing the crisis in Syria that it later presented to the government delegation. The document cited the need for release of political prisoners and the possibility to deliver humanitarian aid to all affected areas of the country

Damascus reportedly agreed to establish a Human Rights Committee in Syria as per the plan and requested a list of prisoners to be considered for release, but these clauses didn’t make it into the final Communiqué of the Moscow meeting. Assad critics, however, immediately doubted his ability to implement these steps in earnest given an unprecedented level of human rights violation in Syria.

The Moscow I Communiqué

At the final press conference on Jan. 29, the moderator of the meeting, prominent Middle East expert and Russia Direct contributor Vitaly Naumkin presented a paper the participants agreed to call “The Moscow Principles.” The document, proposed by Russia but amended by the delegations, contains 11 points and outlines their common position. 

“The Moscow Principles” specifically include mention of Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, political settlement of the crisis in accordance with the Geneva Communiqué, the principle of non-interference of outside powers, and the continuity of the functioning of state institutions. 

Of particular interest is the 10th principle that calls for the end of Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, a clause that the government delegation insisted on including.

Additionally, one more document was presented to the public that Naumkin claims had been composed by all 39 participants of the meeting. The so-called “Appeal to the International Community” consists of four points and calls upon world powers to boost international humanitarian aid to Syria as well as to ease sanctions against Damascus

The document also condemns what it calls Israel’s attacks against Syria and Lebanon, and condemns international interference in Syria.

Prospects for future talks

Participants of the talks in Moscow agreed to hold another meeting in the “Moscow format,” possibly in the beginning of March, 2015, but with a fixed agenda this time. Other opposition groups, including the Syrian National Coalition, will be invited to attend, yet they will not be required to recognize the 11 “Moscow Principles.” Asked about the prospect of foreign powers’ participation in future meetings, Naumkin explained that it is unlikely, as it would clash with the established “Geneva format.”

The format of the meeting whereby opposition figures attend in a personal capacity suggests that Moscow and Damascus may be trying to break existing affiliations of some opposition figures and establish a new political coalition inside Syria. 

The nominal opposition tolerant to the idea of Assad staying in power could become the core of this body. Damascus, Moscow and Tehran could recognize it as a legitimate opposition group and demand its participation as a unified front in any further peace talks.

As of now, the results of the meeting in Moscow are too vague to be talking about the re-launching of the Syrian peace process. 

As Qadri Jamil noted, the goal of this informal meeting was “to agree on how to get to Geneva once more.” The parties reached a preliminary agreement to continue talks in the “Moscow format” but the process will require recognition of its legitimacy by a multitude of parties involved in the Syrian crisis.