Chances for progress in drawing down the Syrian war have improved after the latest round of U.N.-led negotiations, with a main opposition delegation dropping the demand for immediate regime change, Russia’s ambassador in Geneva, Alexei Borodavkin, told the press on Saturday.
The seventh round of talks, concluded in Geneva on Friday, saw a significant change in approach from the primary delegation for the Syrian opposition, the High Negotiations Committee, a Saudi-backed outfit based in Riyadh.
“The essence of this correction is that during this round the opposition never once demanded the immediate resignation of President Bashar al-Assad and the legitimate Syrian government,” Borodavkin said.
There are currently three delegations that represent the opposition in talks, complicating the task of UN mediator Steffan de Mistura in coordinating the negotiations, and preventing direct discussion between the Syrian regime and the fragmented opposition. In addition to the HNC, two other groups known as the Cairo and Moscow platforms represent different parts of the opposition.
Leaders from each delegation have met in an attempt to find common ground, as a unified opposition could lead to direct negotiations at the next round of talks set for September.
For years “Assad must go” was the mantra of the HNC and its international supporters, including the U.S., but the delegation appears to have backed off from that ultimatum.
“If they will be ready to make deals with the government delegation, that is one thing,” Borodavkin said of the opposition. “If they again slide into […] ultimatums and preconditions that are not realistic, then this will not fly. This will lead the negotiations, be it direct or indirect, into a deadlock.”
The United States called on Russia to abandon support for Assad as late as April, with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insisting Assad’s days were numbered and castigating Russia for continuing to aid the regime just an hour before he left for Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart, but the Russians have stood by their Mediterranean ally.
While the U.S. and U.K. have condemned Russia’s actions in Syria, particularly its role in liberating the city of Aleppo, the U.S.-led coalition, of which Britain is a part, now stands accused of committing similar atrocities.
Another sign of progress, in addition to the steps forward taken in the Geneva talks, is found in the ceasefire deal implemented earlier this month. The deal, which covers a swath of territory in the southwestern corner of the country and includes parts of three provinces, appears to be holding.
The next stage of the deal, though currently pending, will include the departure of non-Syrian fighters back to their countries of origin, provision of humanitarian aid to civilians and the establishment of a “monitoring center” in Jordan.
Clashes between Turkey and U.S.-backed Kurdish militias were reported on Saturday in the northern city of Afrin, a Kurdish stronghold, with Turkish artillery shells falling on the city and a few surrounding villages, causing several injuries, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Other clashes broke out near Ain Daqna and Azaz between Turkish or Turkish-backed forces and U.S.-backed Kurds.
In north-central Syria, as the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces continue to push into Raqqa and capture new districts from ISIS, the Syrian regime and its allied militias are making progress toward the city from the south through neighboring provinces, advancing toward the city of al-Sukhna in the north of Homs Province and liberating several villages in the south of Raqqa Province.
While the Syrian war remains extremely complicated and messy—encompassing at least a civil war between the Syrian regime and the rebel opposition, a sectarian proxy war complete with foreign fighters from both Iran and Saudi Arabia and a Turko-Kurdish war in the north over the latter’s national aspirations—there are some rare signs of progress on multiple fronts.
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