Syria crisis talks: What the diplomats REALLY think

geneva syria talks robertson lklv _00005426
geneva syria talks robertson lklv _00005426

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    Syrian peace talks continue in Geneva

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Story highlights

  • Russian military withdrawal "a positive step," rebels' umbrella group's spokesperson said
  • Diplomats in Geneva puzzled over Putin's plans
  • Western diplomats doubt regime's negotiator has power to broker real deal

(CNN)I first met Salem Meslet on a rain-soaked street of the Swiss city back in January. It was a dark time for him. Now, not so much: he's the happiest I've seen him.

The English-speaking Syrian opposition spokesman has been reveling in the possibilities of a Russian military drawdown in Syria.
    "It is a positive step if we see action on the ground," he told journalists gathered outside the U.N.'s sprawling Geneva Headquarters, which is hosting peace talks in the same year that this conflict has entered its sixth year.
    "What's really keeping Assad in power, what keeps crimes until this moment, is the presence of the Russian forces there.
    "It has had an effect on the political atmosphere," he told me, "one more reason to feel they are engaged in a process."

    From despair to hope

    It's a far cry from January when it was Russia's bombing that caused the talks to be suspended and left Meslet dejected. We have met many times since then: in Munich, Riyadh and again this week. He is always well dressed and generous to a fault with his time, greeting you with a friendly handshake.
    For the international audience, Meslet has become the face of the HNC, the High Negotiations Committee, which represents close to 100 rebel factions. They range from a former prime minister to conservative Islamists and are the group that the U.N. has taken to negotiate with the Assad government.
    Peace talks comes amid fragile ceasefire
    Peace talks comes amid fragile ceasefire

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    Peace talks comes amid fragile ceasefire 02:47
    Meslet is always optimistic and chooses his words carefully as he appears before the media. He is urbane and diplomatic, a family man and a far cry from the image of the hardened Islamist fighters that he speaks for.
    Even before Putin's surprise announcement, Meslet and the HNC were already more positive. The cessation of hostilities was holding -- proof, they said, that they could control the armed groups they claim to speak for while validating their claim to represent Syria's opposition and be at the talks.

    And then there's the Syrian government

    But that's not how the Syrian government delegation sees it, with their lead negotiator Bashar Jaafari continuing to push broader opposition representation. Western diplomats doubt he has any power to negotiate at all, saying that the Syrian government delegation are "window dressing" or "not the real deal" or "classic front of house, none of the deep state."
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    It's an analysis that might surprise some of Meslet's colleagues, who privately told us they think that Jaafari picked a more moderate Syrian delegation than previously. Some among the government delegation think they might even be sympathetic to the opposition.
    By contrast, the HNC is keen to push forward with the talks, to put forward their proposals for constitutional change and political transition and the end of Assad's rule.

    What's Putin up to?

    But if there is to be a serious dashing of hopes it may be Russian intentions -- and not Assad's double dealing -- that does it.
    Russia to pull its troops out of Syria
    Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during a press conference in his country residence of Novo-Ogaryova outside Moscow on March 4, 2014.

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      Russia to pull its troops out of Syria

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    Russia to pull its troops out of Syria 01:52
    Across Geneva and beyond, diplomats have been scrambling to understand what Putin is really planning. "We don't have information verifiable of a pullout" one western diplomat told me of Monday's announcement. "It could be a troop rotation, we don't know."
    Analysis is going to take some time, the diplomat continued. "We need to test we are seeing a sustained reduction of Russian presence on ground and in the air. So far we haven't got that yet"
    What is clear for Meslet, the opposition and all Geneva's diplomats, the ups and downs of negotiations have barely begun.