Preparations for Syria talks marred by divergences

Friday 29/01/2016
Riyad Hijab, who heads the Syrian opposition council

LONDON - Efforts to pull together UN-sponsored negotiations to resolve the Syrian civil war have been marred by divergences about issues such as the make-up of delegations and the conditions for the talks.

The biggest Syrian opposition grouping, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), has demanded a ceasefire before negotiations start. The Saudi-backed HNC referred in a statement to the “necessity of re­alising genuine improvements on the ground before starting in the negotiating process”. However, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura told them implementation was beyond his power, a source familiar with an opposition meeting in Riyadh told Reuters.

The HNC is headed by former Syrian prime minister Riyad Hi­jab, who defected to the opposi­tion in 2012, a year after the start of protests against Syrian President Bashar Assad that transformed into a multisided civil war in which some 250,000 people have died.

Hijab has referred to the Syrian “regime’s attempts to jeopardise the political process through ques­tioning the credibility of the oppo­sition delegation” and trying “to insert some controversial names into the delegation formation”.

The HNC has been seeking UN clarification on the agenda of the talks, particularly how the interna­tional community would address humanitarian issues.

Sources close to the opposition told The Arab Weekly that the HNC felt frustrated and misled by the United States agreeing to demands from Russia and Iran — Assad’s main backers — especially after the difficulty of getting the opposition to largely unify at a meeting in Ri­yadh in December.

At a January 23rd meeting, US Secretary of State John Kerry in­sisted opposition members accept new preconditions dictated by Moscow and Tehran, the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat reported. One of the terms Kerry insisted on, ac­cording to the report, was for the opposition to accept a national unity government instead of a transitional governing body, a re­quest perceived as “a scary retreat in the US position” by opposition sources.

The preconditions put in doubt a timetable for Assad’s exit, a big departure from the previous White House position that Assad’s removal be part of peace nego­tiations. The United States, France and Britain all called for Assad to step down after protests broke out against his rule in March 2011.

Kerry also indicated that US President Barack Obama’s admin­istration tacitly endorsed a four-point plan put forward by Tehran that includes internationally su­pervised presidential elections, something already dismissed by the Syrian regime.

The remaining parts of the Ira­nian plan include an immediate ceasefire, the formation of a na­tional unity government and the establishment of minority rights in the constitution. Those proposals have been dismissed by the Syrian opposition as an attempt to anchor Iran in Syria’s future.

The only point agreed on before the negotiations was the urgent need for a ceasefire, which is also a precondition of the HNC. The HNC reportedly informed UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon that it would not participate in the Geneva talks if the Assad regime and its allied militias did not stop targeting ci­vilians and blocking the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Further threats of a boycott came from Turkey, whose Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an interview that Ankara would not participate in the Geneva talks if the Syrian Kurdish group the Democratic Union Party (PYD) was invited. Cavusoglu’s threat came after co-leader of the Syrian Demo­cratic Council, Haytham Manna, said he would boycott if PYD co-leader Salih Muslim did not receive an invitation to Geneva. The PYD is designated a terrorist organisation by Ankara, but its armed wing has been one of the main fighting forc­es backed by US air power in Syria.

As the diplomatic bickering con­tinued, the Assad regime, aided by Russian air strikes, and Iran’s Is­lamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, has made significant gains on the ground, particularly in west­ern Syria, capturing the town of Sheikh Maskin near the Jordanian border.