The first Syria peace talks in over a year will convene next week in Geneva with some opposition participation. The Syrian Opposition Coalition, a group of civilian leaders living largely outside of Syria, has voted to attend the talks being organized by the United States and Russia.
“This is a courageous vote in the interests of all the Syrian people who have suffered so horribly under the brutality of the Assad regime and a civil war without end,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a Saturday statement. “By voting to go to Geneva II with a mission to negotiate an end to the war, the opposition has chosen a path that will ultimately lead to a better future for all Syrians.”
But leaders of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, who voted 58-14 to attend “Geneva 2,” don’t have any illusions that there will be significant progress on the path to peace at the meeting.
The Assad regime’s rejection of the document that came out of the first Geneva conference, along with their continued bombing of civilian areas and Russia’s increased military support for the regime, indicate that the Syrian government and its allies are not seeking a negotiated political solution at this time, opposition leaders said.
“We think it’s a political and media battle. I don’t think we are setting high expectations; no one thinks that Assad will come in and agree to the creation of a transitional governing body,” Khalid Saleh, official spokesman for the Syrian Opposition Coalition, told The Daily Beast in an interview Saturday after the vote.
The decision to attend Geneva 2 was not easy, he said, because the Coalition is skeptical the conference will produce results that benefit the opposition or the Syrian people. But ultimately, the group decided that the conference would be a good place to make their arguments to the world and show that the opposition is not an obstacle to peace.
“We want to explain the story of the revolution and we want to show we are serious about finding a solution,” Saleh said.
Now with the vote behind them, the SOC has only 4 days to prepare for the momentous talks. In the coming days, the Coalition will decide who to send in their official delegation, which probably will not be led by SOC President Ahmad Jarba, according to Saleh.
There are other possible opportunities for breakthroughs, such as prisoner swaps or humanitarian access agreements.
The SOC is also reaching out to many of the other opposition groups fighting the Assad regime and its allies Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah. Although the SOC will form the official delegation, there will also be a “reference group” made up of representatives of other opposition groups. This “reference group” will sit in a room adjacent to the talks and oversee any decisions being made on behalf of the opposition.
“We are going to try to look at some representation from the FSA,” said Salah, referring to one group of fighters on the ground in Syria. The SOC is also reaching out to the local coordinating committees and even to members of the Islamic Front, to ask if they want to participate in Geneva 2.
“We’re keen on having them,” Saleh said about the Islamic Front. “They are the largest group on the ground. We are definitely going to be talking to them.”
Buy in from armed groups on the ground would be necessary to implement any ceasefire agreed to at the Geneva 2 conference.
Saleh noted that Syrian Foreign Minister Waleed Al Mualim wrote to the U.N. on Jan. 6 and said that the regime doesn’t even accept all of the principals of the Geneva Communique, the document that forms the basis for the negotiations.
“It should be noted that we do not agree with certain points mentioned in the letter, simply for the reason that they are in conflict with the legal and political position of the State of Syria; nor do they meet the supreme interests of the Syrian people,” wrote Mualim. “It remains as the priority to the Syrian people to continue to fight terrorism which undermines the existence of our people.”
With that attitude, expectations are low among opposition leaders that the Syrian regime will agree to establish a transitional governing body that does not include Bashar al Assad and has real power and control over the State security services.
“The big question for us is, how is the world going to deal with the fact that the regime is rejecting the Geneva Communique? That will make for an interesting opening for Geneva 2,” said Saleh.
Although progress toward a transitional governing body may not happen, there are other possible opportunities for breakthroughs, such as prisoner swaps or humanitarian access agreements that could alleviate civilian suffering.
The Assad regime has never publicly acknowledged the opposition leadership, preferring to blame the violence in Syria on terrorists and armed groups. The conference will be the first formal acknowledgement of the opposition leadership.
“For them to sit across the table from the opposition, that’s unheard of,” said Saleh.