Syrian opposition sees little hope in Geneva peace talks

Friday 22/01/2016
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (R) and Syrian opposition coordinator and former prime minister of Syria Riyad Hijab

OTTAWA - The Syrian opposition had been expected to meet Syrian President Bashar Assad’s representatives in Geneva in January for a new phase of political negotiations, which were expected to focus on reaching a settlement of the Syrian war. That meeting, however, is in doubt as the United Nations said it would not issue invitations to the talks until major powers pushing the process reach agreement on which rebel representatives should attend.

“At this stage the UN will proceed with issuing invitations when the countries spearheading the ISSG (International Syria Support Group) process come to an understand­ing on who among the opposition should be invited,” UN spokesman Farhan Haq said.

The opposition on January 20th announced the names of members of its delegation, including Moham­med Alloush as chief negotiator, for the Geneva talks. Alloush a political leader of Jaysh al-Islam, a major re­bel group that Moscow and Damas­cus deemed “terrorist”.

Syrian opposition members said, however, they would not attend the talks if a third party takes part, refer­ring to Russia’s intention to widen the opposition delegation and im­pede the negotiations.

UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura had set January 25th as the date for the talks. His spokes­man said in a statement on Decem­ber 26th that he counts on “full cooperation” from all the relevant Syrian parties, adding that recent developments in Syria would not hinder the talks from taking place.

“The hopes for Geneva talks, if it is going to be held, are very modest,” said Samir Nashar, a senior member of the Syrian National Coalition, the major political opposition group. “The conflict will continue until there’s a change in the regional and international arena.”

Unlike previous negotiations be­tween Syria’s opposition and the Assad regime, this phase had been projected to be more productive, as per UN Security Council Resolution 2254 with which the United Nations gained an enhanced role in the pro­cess.

Resolution 2254, unanimously adopted on December 18th and based on the June 2012 Geneva com­muniqué, assigned the United Na­tions the responsibility of outlining a “nationwide ceasefire” in Syria. The ceasefire would demand both the regime and the opposition to take “initial steps” towards a politi­cal transition, which would lead to the formation of a united transition­al government within six months and fair elections within 18 months.

Critics say, however, that any talks would not be much different than previous negotiations, especially because Resolution 2254 is not pre­sented under Chapter VII, which provides the Security Council with legal measures to use force to imple­ment any potential outcomes.

In addition, the United States and Russia vehemently disagree on the desired outcomes for negotiations. The fate of Assad and the preference for post-war Syria remain major points of disagreement.

Peace talks in 2014 failed to pro­duce tangible solutions, largely because the Assad regime’s repre­sentatives refused to discuss a tran­sitional government.

Since then, only one issue has been even partially solved: the frag­mentation of the Syrian opposition. On December 9th, more than 100 members of the Syrian opposition met in Riyadh to create a negotia­tion team to represent all opposition groups during talks with the regime delegation.

As Russia’s involvement in Syria widens, the opposition is uncertain whether any proposed talks would be worth attending.

The opposition’s negotiation coor­dinator, former Syrian prime minis­ter Riad Hijab, said his group would not talk to the government while “foreign forces” are bombing Syria, in reference to Russia’s intervention in support of the Assad regime. Hi­jab also noted that the United States has “backtracked” on its position that Assad must immediately relin­quish power, accommodating Rus­sia’s interests in the conflict.

“The United States, under Presi­dent [Barack] Obama, is working as a mediator between the opposition and the regime and not as a support­er [of the opposition],” said Nashar.

Former US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has expressed doubts that negotiations would end the war in Syria. Testifying January 12th before the US House of Representa­tives Armed Services Committee, Ford said the Obama administra­tion’s policy towards Syria is “like a hope. It’s a wish and it’s been a wish since 2012”.

“I don’t think the process is going to go anywhere,” said Ford, who is known for his work in 2012 for bring­ing the opposition to the previous two rounds of negotiations. “There hasn’t been enough pressure on the Assad regime to accept major con­cessions.”

Nashar said the opposition’s nego­tiating team was meeting in Riyadh to assess its position and participa­tion in any talks.