IDLIB, Syria/DAMASCUS As peace talks are set to get under way in Geneva next week, residents in Syria from nurses to street vendors voice little optimism over the United Nations-backed negotiations’ chance of success.
The Geneva talks will coincide with the fifth anniversary of a conflict that began with protests against President Bashar al-Assad before descending into a multi-sided war that has drawn in foreign governments and allowed the growth of Islamic State.
Fighting has slowed considerably since a fragile "cessation of hostilities agreement" brokered by the United States and Russia came into force almost two weeks ago. The agreement, accepted by the government and most of its enemies, is the first truce of its kind in a war that has killed more than 250,000 people and driven millions of Syrians from their homes.
"The truce has not changed anything in my life. The war planes are still hovering above us,” says Abdul Razzaq Khashan, 40, an aid worker in rebel-held Idlib province. “I do not expect anything from the Geneva talks.”
The truce does not include Islamic State or the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Nusra Front’s fighters are deployed in western Syria, close to rebel groups that have agreed to the halt in fighting, and there have been accusations of violations by all sides.
"The peace talks will take away Syrian people's rights to freedom and justice and will give the Assad regime more power," says Ali Abdullah, 33, a nurse in Dakkak hospital in the northern city of Aleppo. The truce, however, has had a positive impact on his work as a nurse. "I’m glad not to see more injured children.”
Not everyone in Syria shares that pessimism about the possible outcome in Geneva.
"As a university student, I can go three times a week to attend classes now, instead of once before the truce," says Borhan, a cosmetics vendor in the capital Damascus. "I do not know the outcome (in Geneva) but I am optimistic," he says, adding that he is hopeful that the end of the war is close.
Wael, a mobile phone vendor, also in Damascus, says the truce has given him psychological stability, but adds that he expects the war to last 10 years.
"I am not optimistic (about Geneva) because of the opposition's actions," he says, adding that he predicts that the war will last for about ten years.
“The opposition needs to be removed like gangrene,” he says.
An Idlib resident says the talks in Switzerland will come to nothing while Assad remains in place.
“I am against the truce completely because it did not change anything in the pattern of my daily life,” says Abdul Karim Ismail, 58, who works in water transportation. “The Geneva talks will not lead to any result as long as Assad is still in power because he is the root cause of the war in Syria.”
Western states have said the cessation of hostilities appears to be largely holding, hoping that will allow for the talks to get underway. A previous attempt to convene talks was aborted in February before any face-to-face meetings took place.
“I hope Geneva peace talks will make a difference,” says Abu Khair, who sells freshly made fruit juice from a street stall in Damascus. “I hope to God, I hope to God.”
(Portraits of Syrians in this piece can be seen at: reut.rs/1LgYpkk0
(Writing by Brian McGee in London; Editing by Dominic Evans)