By Tom Miles
GENEVA, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Syria's government may have made a strategic blunder by turning up at peace talks in Geneva since it had little to gain, little room for manoeuvre and may have started down a slippery slope by legitimising its opponents, diplomats say.
But its chief sponsor, Russia, is keen to see a peace deal take shape, so it cannot leave.
Many experts thought the peace talks, which concluded their first round on Friday, would never happen, or would quickly break down, and the opposition almost failed to turn up because of the chaotic politics of deciding who would attend.
The government of President Bashar al-Assad came into the talks with a much greater sense of unity and confidence after some military gains, enabling its Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem to make a tub-thumping speech at the opening ceremony, in which he denigrated the opposition and their backers.
"Now the mask has fallen, and we can see the real face of what they want," he said. "We have come to protect the civil state, to put an end to barbarism."
But for the first time, the Geneva talks forced Syria's state media to give a platform to the opposition, while forcing Syria's government to face opposition journalists whom they regard as "terrorists".
"These people who are here in Geneva, who say they represent some of the opposition, they are only interested in creating some credibility for themselves," said Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Assad.
In that, they are succeeding, many observers say. Thrust onto the world stage, opposition spokesmen, coached by western media handlers, appeared every bit as dapper and eloquent as their government counterparts, fielding questions from state media calmly and courteously.
Having long decried the opposition as "terrorists", Moualem was widely seen as conferring status on the head of the opposition delegation, Ahmad al-Jarba, by refusing to attend negotiating sessions unless Jarba was also present.
Diplomats say the government delegation is boxed in by its own propaganda, and its statements are crafted for the audience in Damascus, above all Assad himself. That gives his negotiators no leeway to diverge from their core messages - about the need to fight terrorism, and that Assad's continued leadership of post-war Syria is not up for discussion.
"The problem with a regime like Syria is that every Assad functionary is used to trying to outbid the other. The result is that they have no narrative to tell the world except the empty nationalistic rhetoric," said a Middle Eastern diplomat.
However, despite the unified face they have presented at Geneva, the opposition remains fragile and still has little influence with activists and rebel fighters inside Syria. Diplomats say they are under pressure to show results quickly.
Al Qaeda-linked fighters are already implacably opposed to the negotiations and, without even modest results, other Islamist rebel groups and activists may turn decisively against the process.
NOT TALKING, NOT WALKING
The first days of the Geneva talks focused on humanitarian steps that either side could take such as prisoner releases, allowing aid access and ending sieges of enemy areas.
Although there was no breakthrough, the weight of expectation was on the government because of a "huge asymmetry" in the humanitarian concessions that each side can make, said Marc Finaud, an expert on arms control and Middle East diplomacy at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.
The basic text of the talks says all sides must respect international law, but specifically calls on the government to release arbitrarily detained prisoners and allow full humanitarian access.
The opposition says it has given mediator Lakhdar Brahimi the names of 28,000 people who have been detained by the security forces, including 3,000 women and children.
But fears that pressure to meet its obligations could prompt the government to walk out have been confounded.
"Never. We shall not leave the table. We will continue discussing," said Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad.
Diplomats say the real pressure on Syria comes from its ally Russia, which organised the talks jointly with the United States, and which Syria cannot afford to turn its back on.
Finaud said Russia's main objective was to maintain its status as a world power by showing, as in recent deals on handing over Syria's chemical weapons and curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions, that "nothing can be done without Russia".
It also wanted to maintain its strategic objectives within Syria, including a naval base and arms sales, he said. But, like Syria's other major ally, Iran, it was not clinging to supporting Assad himself, Finaud said.
The government delegation has drawn a "red line" around Assad, saying that his role is not called into question by the document that serves as the basis of talks.
But the opposition say the net will gradually close on the president, since the transitional governing body that the talks aim to establish requires both sides' consent.
"That means both parties have a veto. So we will put a veto over Bashar and the close circle around him. And of course they will put a circle around some of the names that we will propose," said opposition spokesman Anas al-Abdah.
The government is expected to try to provoke splits in opposition ranks and to spin the talks out as long as possible to discredit their foes as a negotiating force.
"They will try and try. We'll be very patient. We'll be extremely patient, and we'll wait until we drag them kicking and screaming into this negotiation," said Abdah.
If the two sides move on from the rhetorical sparring and start talking in earnest, they could find common ground in fighting a common enemy - foreign Islamist fighters who are not represented at the Geneva talks, Finaud said.
"In a sense that would be a strategy of survival for most of the regime. They would probably have to sacrifice Assad, but most of the other members of the regime would salvage their positions." (Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Editing by Will Waterman)