Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

The road to Geneva II

The Geneva peace conference on Syria has been scheduled for 22 January despite the reticence of the country’s opposition

Al-Ahram Weekly

As the appointed date for Geneva II, the conference many hope will bring peace and reconciliation to Syria, draws near, it is not yet clear where the Syrian opposition stands, writes Bassel Oudat.

The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), an umbrella group which recently met in Istanbul, does not seem able to make up its mind about either the conference or who should lead the opposition delegation.

At the Istanbul meeting, the NCSROF held elections to select new leaders, but when the vote turned out to be in favour of the incumbents almost one-third of its members walked out in frustration, threatening the movement’s unity ahead of the Geneva negotiations.

NCSROF officials now say that their decision on Geneva II, scheduled to convene on 22 January, will be announced “within days.”

Meanwhile, in Cordova in Spain nearly 200 Syrian opposition figures from across the political spectrum tried to hammer out a unified opposition position to present to the international community. Their verdict was that they would not be able to attend Geneva II unless the conference led to the removal of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad from power and the trial of key figures of his regime.

In France, 11 countries from the opposition Friends of Syria Group also held consultations with NCSROF members and asserted that the only possible solution to the Syrian conflict was through political means.

In New York, the UN secretary-general said that the Geneva II conference would need to implement the final statement of Geneva I, especially with regard to the interim government arrangements.

In Washington, US officials said that Iran would not be taking part in the conference, a statement that was greeted with satisfaction by opposition members but must have angered Damascus and Moscow.

Syrian officials still believe that their participation in Geneva II will not mean that they will have to cede power to the opposition, preferring to see the conference as simply a way to hold a dialogue.

On principle, the NCSROF seems willing to attend the conference, but the continued bickering within the organisation’s ranks does not augur well for the opposition.

The Syrian National Council, part of the NCSROF, has decided not to go to Geneva II, and has said that it may pull out of the NCSROF altogether if the latter decides to participate.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has also been adamant that the conference is pointless. In a recent statement, the Brotherhood said that “the continued international silence on the crimes of Al-Assad and his regime precludes the chances for a political solution and prolongs the humanitarian crisis. Therefore, attendance at Geneva II will be little more than an exercise in futility.”

Louay Safi, a key figure in the NCSROF, explained the reasons why the NCSROF had decided to attend. “The invitation sent by the UN secretary-general states clearly that the negotiations will be about forming an interim government with full powers and notes that the Geneva I final statement will be the basis of negotiations.”

The NCSROF was not going to fall into “the regime’s trap” by not attending Geneva II, he said.

NCSROF officials will go to the conference to demand practical steps aiming to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people, including delivering food and medicine to besieged areas and releasing political prisoners, Safi said.

However, 44 NCSROF members, having decided to pull out of the group, issued a statement describing the conference as an act of “capitulation and submission.”

Moaz Al-Khatib, former NCSROF president, defended attendance at the conference.

“The conference is meant to formulate an international position on the crisis, which we can turn in our favour. Attendance is a good way to pressure the international community and rally the support of civilian and military forces to our cause. Boycotting it would be an easy way out,” he said.

Al-Khatib added that the opposition needed skillful negotiators to put its point across.

“If we go to the conference with a strong negotiating team and a clear vision, we will be able to turn the table on the regime, for it is weaker than we think,” Al-Khatib remarked.

Independent opposition figure Walid Al-Binni believes that the conference should be postponed. “If it is held now, the conference will rehabilitate the regime by making it a partner in deciding the future of Syria,” he said.

Al-Binni added that the regime, which has killed thousands of Syrians some of them with internationally banned weapons, must now face trial at the International Criminal Court.

Haitham Manna, deputy leader of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, was also for postponement.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Manna said that “the Russians are humouring the regime but not the opposition, even those close to them. Unless the opposition unites ahead of the talks, it will not gain anything from Geneva II.”

These are hard times for the opposition. Divided politically and fighting on two fronts at home, against the regime and against the terrorist groups that may have connections with it, the opposition’s chances of forming a united front seem remote.

With about 40,000 Shiite fighters from Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran now fighting alongside the regime, according to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an opposition group, military prospects are also not exactly promising.

Military aid to the opposition remains insignificant compared to what the regime has been receiving from its allies.

The Friends of Syria Groups has so far refused to supply the FSA with the advanced weapons that may help the latter tip the balance in its favour.

Meanwhile, Iran’s moral and military support of Al-Assad seems unshakable.

Politically, the West does not seem willing to offer any guarantees to the Syrian opposition. And Russia is just as committed as ever to protecting its friends in Damascus.

No wonder the opposition finds itself in a sticky position. If it goes to the conference in its current state of fragmentation, it is unlikely to gain much for its cause. And if it stays away, the regime will assert, yet again, that there is no viable option to its hold on power.

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