The Syria peace talks are doomed before they have even begun

The real reason for the Geneva II talks taking place is so that the international community can pat itself on the back for "doing something".

The discussions focused on finding a peaceful solution to the ongoing civil war in Syria, called the Geneva II talks and due to start in Montreux today (why not in Geneva?), have hit another snag. On Saturday the Syrian National Coalition voted to attend the talks. This was a major breakthrough as the meeting would have been mere farce without their presence. Then on Monday they announced that they were threatening to pull out due to the latest development: the UN had invited Iran to officially attend. Then the US stepped in and said that Iran couldn’t come. So Iran aren’t coming. But the SNC are. These talks are off to a flying start already.

The UN and most of the western powers seem to be acting willfully blind when it comes to Syria. "There is a binary choice here," Hugh Robertson, the Parliamentary Under Secretary for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs said to Al Jazeera. "You either put pressure on them and try to have a peace agreement in Geneva. Or you do not bother and the fighting continues. If Geneva fails, we stop, we understand why, we regroup and we try again." This statement from the Right Honourable Member for Faversham and Mid Kent is fairly typical of what is being pumped out by western governments ahead of Geneva II. The question is this: what do they really expect to get out of these talks? This is not a moot question; even if you take the "it is for the participants to decide" angle, surely you have to have in mind something that would be considered a win?

I would love to see the talks result in any sort of peace, even a temporary ceasefire if nothing else. But the prospects for even this are wholly unrealistic. For a start, the SNC have declared that they would not consider the result of the discussions in any way binding. This is a reasonable position for them to take; the whole reason they were considering not attending the talks was that they felt they were being arranged as a set piece to demonstrate how the Assad regime was "fighting terrorism", a supposition that is at least partly true.

Due to the length of time the civil war had raged on, bringing with it an inevitable flood of jihadists into Syria, the Assad regime’s pronouncements on the subject have finally come to have a ring of truth about them. Assad has also already declared that any solution that would demand the stepping down of himself as President would be dismissed out of hand. William Hague, in a statement welcoming the Geneva discussions said, "As I have said many times, any mutually agreed settlement means that Assad can play no role in Syria's future." This is a lovely thing for the Foreign Secretary to say, but now that the west has on numerous occasions failed to back up its words with actions what would make the Assad regime accept a solution that everyone except President Assad liked? I don’t see it. All this, sadly, makes the talks doomed before they have even begun.

It seems to me like the real reason for the Geneva talks taking place is so that the international community can pat itself on the back for "doing something" about Syria. Unfortunately, Syria needs a lot more than token gestures at the moment. 

Non-profit activist website AVAAZ members take part in a street performance during a protest action calling for an immediate ceasefire in Syria. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nick Tyrone is Chief Executive of Radix, the think tank for the radical centre.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.