It’s become customary not to expect much from the Syria peace conferences. The warring parties argue around same mutual claims, often stick to maximalist positions and frequently seem more interested in trying to project a sympathetic image to outside observers than in discussing the issues on the agenda. External sponsors, in their turn, are usually facing three challenges: whom to invite; how to make the Syrian government and opposition forces to agree to something — even a tiny step — that can be more or less monitored; and how to package mediation efforts as a diplomatic success.
Assembled after numerous delays and rescheduling, the fourth round of Geneva talks held under UN auspices was no exception in this regard. Even Staffan de Mistura, the UN's special Syria envoy, said Feb. 22 that he wasn’t “expecting a breakthrough.” In a sense, this time there were no talks about a Syria settlement per se, but the talks have proved instrumental in moving toward sewing together patches of the opposition groups. This and de Mistura's proposal to create groups to work on drafting the constitution, holding elections and planning for the transition process in Syria have so far been key outcomes of this round in Geneva. The work along these lines is supposed to produce at least modest results until some solution is reached and the parties are ready to move to a more substantial level of discussions. Until that time, everyone should brace themselves for the meetings to be lingering and attritional.