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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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