Why are peace talks only starting now?
There were two previous attempts to get the government and rebels fighting in Syria negotiating. Both failed. But the urgency is greater now that 11 million Syrians have been displaced. Refugees have sought haven throughout Europe and in neighboring countries that are being destabilized by the overwhelming burden of caring for so many people. The idea to even have talks came from a group of 20 countries and multinational organizations, spearheaded by Secretary of State John F. Kerry. Fresh from negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, Kerry turned his energies to Syria, seeking an end to the war that grew out of anti-government protests in 2011.
Are Syrians pushing the peace talks, or is it mostly foreigners who want them?
A framework for the United Nations-sponsored talks was established by the coalition known as the International Syrian Support Group. It includes countries that are normally at odds on most other issues, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, or Russia and the United States. The stated goals are to get a cease-fire, start talking about a transitional government and hold elections within 18 months. The Syrian government has sent representatives, as have most of the opposition groups.
How will the talks work?
The Syrians don't appear happy to be there and have agreed to attend only indirect, "proximity" talks. Because neither side is willing to be in the same room with the other, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura will act as a mediator, shuttling between the government and the rebels in their different rooms.
What does the United States want out of this?
The United States wants all military efforts aimed at the Islamic State, which controls large swaths of Syria and Iraq. Russia insists it is equally interested in ousting the "terrorists" operating in Syria. But the Obama administration has repeatedly been frustrated by a Russian air campaign that began in September. Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, says its strikes are directed against the terrorists. The United States and its allies, however, say the majority of Russian airstrikes are hitting Western-backed rebel positions and serve to prop up the Assad government.
Are the Syrians ready to put their weapons down?
Attempts to shift from the battleground to the negotiating table have struggled to take off. A cease-fire that was supposed to start in December never happened. Talks were supposed to begin right after the new year, but they didn't materialize until the end of the month.
After weeks of delay, talks officially began on Jan. 29. On the very same day, however, Syrian government forces, supported by Russian airstrikes, launched an offensive against the rebels. In Geneva, the opposition groups refused to talk with representatives of forces that were killing them at home.
Without any chance of making progress, de Mistura called a “pause” in the talks until Feb. 25.
What's happening in Syria now?
The fighting has only gotten worse. The offensive by Syrian forces, backed by Hezbollah and Shiite militias allied with Iran and by Russian warplanes, has hammered away at rebel strongholds near Aleppo, sending tens of thousands of civilians fleeing for the Turkish border. Russia has proposed stopping the bombing on March 1, three weeks from now. But the opposition still says it won’t talk until the airstrikes on civilian areas stop, sieges on towns across Syria are lifted and humanitarian aid gets through unimpeded.
Kerry has said he would at least like to get an agreement on a cease-fire and guaranteed safe access for humanitarian groups trying to reach besieged areas where residents have resorted to eating grass, amid reports that large numbers of people have starved to death.
What are the prospects the talks will achieve anything soon?
Many diplomats have warned it will be virtually impossible to talk peace around a negotiating table in Switzerland while, on the ground, Syrian, Russian and Iranian-backed troops are training their fire on the opposition. Until the talks start, the military campaign is working in favor of the Assad regime, chipping away at any incentive to compromise.