Geneva 2.1: Syria Peace Talks Resume With Little Optimism

Government delegates and opposition representatives return to Geneva for another round of what is likely to be a long, drawn-out and ineffectual process

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Bassel Tawil / AFP / Getty Images

Civilians leave the the besieged district of the central Syrian city of Homs ahead of being evacuated by United Nations staff to a safer location, on Feb. 9, 2014.

Syrian government delegates and representatives of the opposition reconvened in Geneva on Monday for a new round of peace talks designed to bring an end to the vicious civil war. But while hopes are high among the process’s international backers, progress is likely to be slow. So slow, in fact, that many Syrians have already given up. “It’s hard to remain hopeful and expect any sort of political process to yield results when we wake up every day to reports of cities being shelled with barrel bombs,” says Mark, a 24-year-old unemployed university graduate in Damascus, referring to the regime’s practice of dropping explosives-packed barrels out of helicopters onto rebel-held areas. Like other Syrians who spoke with TIME via Skype, Mark asked to go by his first name only to protect his security.

This week’s conference, which is expected to last five days, follows a previous round of negotiations that ended Jan. 31 with little to show but a weary acceptance that the process must continue. It was a success only because it marked the first time the opposing sides had faced each other off the battlefield. Then, as now, the core concerns of each camp have little overlap upon which to build an agreement. The opposition demands a “mutually agreed-upon” political transition away from the rule of President Bashar Assad, as laid out at the first Geneva conference (dubbed Geneva 1), in June 2012. The regime wants to drive out the “terrorists” — its term for opposition fighters.

If the first round was about getting the two sides to a negotiating table and talking to each other, this round — call it Geneva 2.1 — will focus on the core issues. According to Western diplomats close to the process, lead U.N. negotiator Lakhdar Brahimi does not want to get bogged down in issues of humanitarian aid, cease-fires or prisoner swaps. While those aspects are important for the well-being of Syrian civilians, they are not likely to lead to a long-term solution to the problem, diplomats say. The government and opposition might discuss those issues in a parallel track, where diplomats hope that they can deliver valuable confidence-building measures — like access for humanitarian aid — that can build momentum toward a settlement.

Those in the Syrian government, however, believe that the talks will produce nothing at all if the regime is forced to negotiate its own demise and nothing else. “Geneva 2 should open the door to reconciliation, to stability, to a cease-fire and humanitarian relief,” independent Syrian parliamentarian Maria Saddeh told TIME while on a visit to Beirut. “What Geneva should not be about is deciding the future leadership of Syria. That is up to Syrians, and it is not going to work in Geneva.”

Today’s talks follow on the heels of a three-day cease-fire that allowed hundreds of civilians to escape rebel-held areas of the besieged Syrian city of Homs. For more than a year, government checkpoints prevented residents from getting out and food and humanitarian supplies from getting in. But the temporary truce ended in a barrage of mortar and sniper fire that each side blamed on the other, raising questions about the viability of such agreements going forward. If even a temporary cease-fire fails — one negotiated by the U.N. for only a handful of neighborhoods — then what hope is there for results on a wider scale? “After Geneva 1, the regime used chemical weapons to kill Syrians. After Geneva 2, they used barrel bombs,” Homs resident and former pastry chef Bebars, 24, says via Skype, referring to air raids on the city of Aleppo that killed hundreds of Syrians last week. “Any reasonable human being who looks at the regime’s behavior in Geneva and in Syria will come to the conclusion that this regime is mocking the international community.” He too asked to use only his first name in order to protect his family.

Not all Syrians have given up hope, but bitter experience has tempered expectations. The war has already taken an estimated 130,000 lives, grievously injured more than half a million Syrians and driven some 8 million from their homes. Many look at that toll and wonder what else it will take to force the international community to act. “I wouldn’t say Geneva 2 is a complete joke,” says 27-year-old translator Hind Issa, via Skype, from Damascus. “I do believe that in 10 years the political process may eventually pay off. People’s lives are at stake, but this doesn’t seem to be a priority.”

— With reporting by Hania Mourtada / Beirut