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 associate director, external affairs, at Centre Forum.

Photo: Getty Images
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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation