BEIRUT (AP) — Much has changed since Syria's warring sides met for the last round of U.N.-brokered talks in Geneva last summer.
The Islamic State group has been defeated in all its major strongholds, rebels seeking to topple President Bashar Assad have been significantly weakened and Russia, Iran, Turkey and the U.S. have engaged in high level diplomacy that has largely frozen the lines of conflict.
Most significantly, the U.N. is sidestepping for now the divisive issue of Assad's future in a post-war Syria, a question that has derailed all previous attempts to end the country's devastating war.
In this light, diplomats are hoping that at last the parties in Syria may be ready to make some forward progress in talks that formally got under way with the arrival of the government delegation on Wednesday. There is little optimism, however, that the current round would achieve any significant breakthroughs.
Still, this round of talks stands out from the previous seven.
The question of Assad's future looms over Syria, but it has been a non-starter for talks in Geneva. This time, U.N.'s Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, is trying to sidestep the issue and has asked the two sides to focus on constitutional reform and elections, instead.
Considering Geneva's past record for deadlock, a real dialogue between the two sides on these two matters would represent a "significant step forward," according to a European diplomat close to the negotiations.
"That is clearly a long way from any assurance that Assad is about to go, but I think we need baby steps," said the diplomat, who was not authorized to speak on the record about the negotiations.
In fact, an even more modest target of getting the two sides to agree to speak about these issues could work to advance the diplomatic process, said a Syrian intermediary close to the opposition. An agenda for further discussion can then be taken to Sochi, Russia, where President Vladimir Putin says he wants to assemble a "Syrian People's Congress" to hash out a peace for Syria. Russia's Foreign Ministry said it could convene a conference in January or February.
Assad's government prefers to negotiate in Sochi; Russia's military and diplomatic support for Assad has remained unshakeable through seven years of war. The opposition says they do not see the purpose of opening a Sochi track when the U.N. is sponsoring talks in Geneva.
The opposition's delegation was expanded last week under Saudi Arabian auspices to include factions seen by Damascus and its backers as more acceptable for negotiations, including the "Moscow group," which has resisted calls for Assad's departure. This makes it the first time that the notoriously fragmented opposition attends talks with one unified delegation.
Opposition delegation head Nasr Hariri said the reformulation removed any excuse for Syria's government and its chief diplomatic backer, Russia, to avoid the U.N. talks.
The new opposition delegation has called for direct talks with the government delegation, saying they were ready to engage in talks 'without preconditions," but at the same time says its goal remains to push Assad aside.
Previous talks have almost all been indirect so-called proxy talks, with the U.N. envoy shuffling back and forth between the government and opposition delegations.
Ahmed Ramadan, a member of the Syrian opposition delegation, said while the opposition is reviewing and putting final remarks to represents its unified views regarding mechanisms for drafting the constitution, a constitutional declaration to govern the transitional period and election mechanisms, the government is stalling because it wants to "waste time."
Ramadan said de Mistura is proposing that talks go on until Dec. 15.
"There has been a long hiatus of negotiations. We have to enter serious negotiations. We must start these negotiations," Ramadan said.
FROZEN LINES OF CONFLICT
This year has seen intensive negotiations between Russia and Iran, staunch Assad backers, on one side and Turkey, the U.S. and Jordan, who supported the opposition. The talks effectively froze the front lines between the government and rebels, allowing the opposition — weak as it is — to maintain a claim to some territory in the country.
The agreements, which outlined four "de-escalation zones" in Syria, also reflect outside stakes in the war, could have a moderating effect on the fighting by the balance of the powers. In south Syria, Jordan, the U.S., and, by proxy, Israel, have demanded Iran, another one of Assad's military backers, to keep its proxy militias and its own forces away from Israel's border. And Turkey is extending its military and political and social institutions into north Syria, laying its own stakes in the country.
But rebels still hold pockets outside Syria's third largest city Homs and Damascus, the capital — a real sore point for the government. Rebels seized a military installation two weeks ago and killed dozens of pro-government fighters, including at least one general, in the fighting outside the capital. Shells falling on the capital are undermining the government's narrative that it is in control. The battle has exposed the government's helplessness to defend itself without muscular Russian and Iranian support and will remain a pressure point on Damascus throughout the talks.
DEFEAT OF ISLAMIC STATE GROUP
With the near-defeat of the Islamic State group in Syria, Vladimir Putin says there are no more excuses — the parties can now turn to peace.
"Militants in Syria have received a decisive blow, and there is a real chance to put an end to the civil war that has raged for many years," said Putin last week at a trilateral summit in Sochi with Turkey's Erdogan and Iran's Rouhani.
"The process of reforms isn't going to be easy and will require concessions and compromises from all those involved, including the Syrian government," he said.
But analysts say Assad is not ready to offer concessions, particularly in a U.N.-led context.
Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said a Russian-led process may be "ceding to regime preferences."
The end of the Islamic State group could mean a new battle between the U.S.-backed Kurds who fought back IS, and the central government, and this will have to be addressed in talks.
For now, that's been swept under the rug, and the dominant Kurdish party has not been invited to the talks.
Keaten reported from Geneva. Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.