GENEVA – Yet another sequel to chronically-fruitless Syria peace talks, or an entirely new script?
After months of Syria bloodshed, stalled humanitarian aid deliveries and stop-and-start diplomacy, U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura is reconvening talks between government and opposition delegations on Thursday, in the latest bid to end the country's catastrophic six-year war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more.
Hopes are not exactly high for "Geneva IV," the fourth round of U.N-mediated intra-Syrian talks since early last year.
Battlefield gains by President Bashar Assad's forces against Western-backed rebels, a new diplomatic push led by Turkey and Russia, and uncertainty about the Trump administration's strategy on Syria — the U.S. has been largely on the sidelines in recent months — have raised questions about prospects for the latest attempt to silence Syria's guns and return the country to peace.
Here's a look at some of the most fundamental questions:
WHO IS COMING?
De Mistura says envoys from each side arrived on Wednesday, and others were expected on Thursday. Bashar al-Ja'afari, Syria's U.N. ambassador who is one of the strongest defenders of Assad's government, is again leading Damascus' delegation. A newcomer to the government team is Syrian Kurdish legislator Omar Ossi, who some opposition figures say is a member of the Kurdistan Workers Party. For decades, Turkey has fought the party seeking autonomy for ethnic Kurds in a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
The opposition delegation is headed by a new face, Nasr Hariri, a 40-year-old cardiologist from the southern province of Daraa where the uprising that sparked the Syrian civil war began in March 2011. Detained more than 20 times before fleeing Syria, he's now a senior member with the Syrian National Coalition, one of the largest opposition groups. The 21-member delegation also includes Mohammed Alloush of the rebel Army of Islam, as well as army defectors including Fateh Hassoun, Moaatasem Shammeir, Ahmad Osman, Ziad Hariri and Khaled Naboulsi.
U.N.-listed terrorist groups such as the Islamic State group and al-Qaida's Fatah al-Sham Front, which both control territory in Syria, are again excluded.
HOW IS THIS TIME DIFFERENT?
Much has changed since de Mistura suspended the last round in April, after two short-lived truces early last year collapsed and heavy fighting resumed. The United States, under the Obama administration, and Russia had been leading the diplomatic push at the time, but now Washington's line is unclear as President Donald Trump continues to assemble his foreign-policy team.
Moscow, in the meantime, has taken center stage. Thanks largely to Russian-backed air power and on-the-ground support from Iran and Hezbollah, the militant group in neighboring Lebanon, Assad's forces were able to expel rebel fighters in December from a longtime stronghold on the eastern side of the city of Aleppo, which was Syria's economic capital and largest city before the war began.
The U.N.-hosted gathering also follows cease-fire talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, that were coordinated largely by Turkey and Russia. Those meetings led to a breakthrough of sorts: the two Syrian sides sat face-to-face, and de Mistura suggested that it's not clear yet whether they will again in Geneva. De Mistura says the fragile cease-fire has mostly been holding. But violations occur daily.
Turkey and Russia, who support opposing sides, are working together. But Ankara is in a squeeze and distracted, fighting terrorism at home.
De Mistura said: "2017 — from a geopolitical, from a military, from a general point of view — is very different from 2016 ... A year ago, what was a cease-fire led by the U.S. and Russia under their own sponsorship, has now been replaced by two guarantors, plus one — Iran — called Turkey and Russia."
The patchwork opposition backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia has also taken a new shape. It is dominated by figures who want no role for Assad in Syria's future, or even in a transitional period. But the opposition's delegation now includes some groups seen as less hostile to Assad than the High Negotiations Committee, which was the main opposition faction in previous rounds.
WHAT CAN REASONABLY BE EXPECTED?
As before, de Mistura's team is trying to stick to a script laid out in U.N. Security Council resolution 2254 adopted in late 2015, which has called for a process of political transition. But that's among the thorniest issues, because it calls into question Assad's possible role for a country where many millions could want to seek justice for wartime killings and other horrors.
De Mistura said Wednesday that he's not expecting a breakthrough, but wants to build momentum. He said he envisions Thursday's meeting as the "beginning of a series of rounds that will be able to go much more in depth into the substantive issues."
James Dobbins, a senior fellow at the Rand Corp. think tank, said the talks should put consolidation of the cessation of hostilities at the top of the agenda, rather than "more irreconcilable differences over the future shape of the Syrian government."
Dobbins, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state, also pointed to the importance of the United States to "engage in a serious way in this process" and that the ethnic Kurds — who have been excluded from U.N. talks in the past — should eventually be included.
"If it (the process) brings all the parties to the table, and it leads to consolidating the cessation of hostilities, even if it doesn't make progress on the issues that are considered formally on the agenda, I think it could be regarded as a success," Dobbins said. "On the other hand, if a breakdown over those issues leads to a resumption in violence, I think it's a failure."