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Syrian peace talks on the rocks after opposition negotiator quits

Mohammed Aloush, the chief negotiator for the Syrian opposition group at the Geneva peace talks, has resigned. DW spoke with Middle East expert Udo Steinbach about the causes and consequences.

DW: Prof. Steinbach, what do you make of Mohammed Aloush (above, center) stepping back from the Syrian peace talks? Is it merely a tactic, or does this mean the talks have collapsed?

Steinbach: The negotiations never really got going. And the Syrian government is continuing its military attacks on civilian targets. If you look at it like that, then Aloush's resignation seems logical. You could speculate that Aloush, as the leader of an Islamist organization, has close ties with the Saudis, and that Saudi Arabia has, in recent weeks, been pushing for stronger support for the Syrian opposition. You could then view the resignation as opening the door to increased military measures, instead of diplomacy with regard to the regime in Damascus.

Aloush supports a Salafist-influenced group known as Jaysh al-Islam, or the Brigade of Islam. That doesn't exactly sound as though he's interested in promoting peace. And this is the man representing the main opposition group - isn't that a problem in itself?

Islamforum in Duschanbe Udo Steinbach

Middle East expert Udo Steinbach

He doesn't represent the entire Syrian opposition. He represents a strong Islamist organization. But there are also non-Islamist negotiators who are in no way inferior to Aloush in terms of political influence. Of course, it was a problem to allow Jaysh al-Islam to be one of the organizations taking part in the political process because there is a lot of disagreement over to what extent Jaysh al-Islam is more moderate than Islamic State or the Al-Nusra Front. The decision was made to allow this organization, but I repeat: Neither Jaysh al-Islam, nor Aloush, represent the entire political or armed opposition.

Assad's troops are not doing so badly at the moment, mainly because of Russian support. They've managed to push back Islamic State. Is Assad under any pressure to negotiate at the moment?

He himself clearly doesn't seem to think so, nor do the Russians. It's true that the military situation has become more relaxed for him. The political opposition at the table in Geneva - and Russia, too - doesn't really have a concrete concept they can agree on in terms of what should happen with Assad in the negotiating process. Given this situation - political upheaval among the negotiating partners on the one hand and Assad's relatively strong military position on the other - it appears that the will to come to a political solution is flagging.

What roles are the regional and superpowers Russia, the United States, Iran, and the EU playing? Are there shifting interests or power relations that could point to a way out?

No, not really. Among the powers you mentioned, there's only the lowest common denominator with regard to Assad. As for the Russians, they don't really know what to do with Assad. The Russian side seems to be pushing for Assad's political survival to be part of the results of the talks, but that's something that the other partners, including the US and the Europeans, reject. They can only conceive of a future for Syria without Assad. So there are profound differences. There have also only been halfhearted discussions about fighting Islamic State, on the side of Turkey, for example.

Are there any grounds for optimism? What has to happen, or who has to act, in order for there to be a realistic chance of peace?

I don't see any real prospects at the moment. I already mentioned the political upheaval. In terms of the military aspect, there are doubts about whether a military option is really on the table for the international alliance, with respect to the future of Assad. There is a glimmer of hope with regard to military operations against Islamic State. Pressure is increasing at the moment, particularly in Iraq, but also in Syria. But that's just one tiny glimmer of hope; one that in no way signals an end to the Syrian conflict anytime soon.

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