Long planned for January 25, the UN peace talks on Syria did not begin today in Geneva, Switzerland, though UN officials continued to hype the conference, saying they intend for a “six month process” to begin on Friday.
The big obstacle to the talks actually happening on Friday is the same obstacle as there was in recent months, that the international community still hasn’t agreed on who is going to be allowed to attend, and the UN still hasn’t made a move to invite anybody.
UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura says the plan is to send on invitations on Tuesday, which seems to assume some miraculous agreement on the rebel factions. This would give all those factions a few days to get into town for Friday talks.
The first goal of the talks would be to come up with a “national ceasefire” involving all parties. Mistura insisted the deal wouldn’t cover al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front or ISIS, but presumably also wouldn’t include any other faction not invited to the talks.
Russia in particular has pushed this as a chance to unify moderate rebels and the government to fight against ISIS, but between them, the US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, the fight over who counts as a “moderate” rebel has been an interminable one.
The Saudis have pushed for the inclusion of several Islamist groups, but have sought to keep non-Muslim factions sidelined. Turkey, by contrast, has demanded that the major Kurdish factions be forbidden from participating, while Russia has insisted on the Kurds’ inclusion and objected to involving Islamist groups allied to al-Qaeda, which includes some of the Saudis’ closest allies. The US seems mostly to be going along for the ride on who to invite, but is pushing for a bunch of concessions from the government.
Which brings up the other major problem. Though no one’s been invited yet, an awful lot of factions have already ruled out attending, or issued enormous demands as a condition of their involvement. This means that even if the UN can finally get around to inviting people, it doesn’t mean anyone will have shown up by Friday.