GENEVA (Reuters) - Like a headmaster addressing rowdy pupils, the United Nations envoy for Syria began peace talks in Geneva last week by telling the warring parties to behave and show respect.
But five days into the latest attempt to end the Syrian conflict, there are scant signs that Staffan de Mistura’s strictures are making much difference.
“Respect my directions regarding the confidentiality of meetings, documentations, conversations and communications,” says the first point of a working paper handed out by the 70-year-old diplomat, designed to keep things civilised and secret.
Point two declares: “Respect the others who are present in these proceedings. No one has the right to question the legitimacy of others.”
But at Thursday’s opening ceremony, the first time the two sides had come face-to-face under a U.N. flag since 2014, the tensions among the participants were already palpable.
The main opposition body, the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC), arrived late. Opposition and diplomatic sources said there had been some discontent about attending the ceremony on an equal footing with smaller factions.
The U.N. placed the opposition delegations next to each other, albeit on separate tables, to face the stern-looking head of the Syrian government delegation, Bashar Ja‘afari.
Neither of the opposing sides applauded De Mistura’s speech urging them to cooperate. The envoy went to shake hands with all sides after his opening remarks, but as he embraced the opposition delegates, the government group were already walking out of the room. They did not turn back.
Since then, De Mistura has reverted to shuttling between the rival camps in so-called proximity talks, as he did at the last round of negotiations 10 months ago, rather than trying to get them back together in the same room.
The veteran diplomat has made clear from the talks’ outset that lack of trust is the main obstacle to progress towards peace in Syria, where hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions displaced since 2011. He has played down expectations of a major breakthrough.
His four-page working paper outlined a more modest goal: to lay the foundations for further rounds of talks that would then delve into deeper issues such as governance, a new constitution and elections.
Creating a civilised climate is part of that plan. “Use appropriate language and behaviour and avoid making offensive, degrading, inflammatory or personal attacks, in and out of meetings,” the paper said.
But events on the ground are making that difficult. On Saturday, suicide bombers struck security forces in the city of Homs, and the government launched air strikes on various rebel-held areas.
That prompted government envoy Ja‘afari to revert to the long-held Damascus line that all the opposition groups are terrorists, and to make a thinly disguised jab at De Mistura.
“Combating terrorism implies addressing those who sponsor terrorism instead of inviting them to sit at the front row of the opening ceremony,” he said.
The opposition condemned the attack but accused the government of trying to use it as an excuse to derail the talks.
Asked about De Mistura’s call for mutual respect, an opposition official told Reuters: “We’re here to respect the needs of the Syrian people.”
With hotels fully booked from next week as the Geneva car show opens on March 9, diplomats expect De Mistura to persist at least until the weekend, despite the unpromising atmosphere.
“He is saying the minimum because he has learnt to be prudent and wants to avoid the soap operas,” a senior Western diplomat said. “He is perpetually on a balancing tightrope because everyone is having a go at him.”
Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Mark Trevelyan