By Ryan Lucas
BEIRUT: Reflecting confusion in efforts to convene an international conference to end Syria’s civil war, the Arab League chief announced on Sunday that talks will take place next month in Geneva, only to have the U.N. envoy flatly deny a date has been set.
The bizarre diplomatic two-step between Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby and the U.N. envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, at a joint news conference added to the uncertainty surrounding the proposed peace talks. A decision over whether the long-delayed negotiations will happen at all could come at a meeting of the Syrian opposition early next month that will focus on whether to sit down with President Bashar Assad’s regime.
The United States and Russia, who support opposing sides in the conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people, have been trying for months to bring the Damascus government and Syria’s divided opposition to the table for a peace conference. But with the war deadlocked, neither the regime nor the rebels showed any interest in compromise, forcing the meeting to be repeatedly postponed.
Even now, it remains unclear whether either side is willing to negotiate.
The main Western-backed opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, is scheduled to meet Nov. 1-2 in Istanbul to decide whether to take part in the proposed Geneva conference. One of the most prominent factions within the Coalition, the Syrian National Council, has said it has no faith in talks with Assad’s regime and won’t attend any Geneva negotiations.
But the Coalition’s ability to speak for the broader rebellion has long been in dispute, and fighters inside Syria — many of whom reject negotiations with the regime — have accused the opposition leaders in exile of being out of touch with reality on the ground. The Coalition’s credibility, already strained, took a major hit last month when nearly a dozen prominent rebel groups publicly broke with the opposition umbrella group.
The government, meanwhile, has kept its options via Geneva open. Some officials have said all opposition groups should be represented in the talks, while others have refused to deal with the Coalition. Assad, however, has stuck to one point throughout: a refusal to talk with “terrorists,” the term the government uses for those trying to topple the president by force.
With questions over who will attend lingering, Elaraby announced after meeting with Brahimi at Arab League headquarters in Cairo that the Geneva conference would be held Nov. 23. Elaraby acknowledged that “many difficulties” remain.
But standing next to him, Brahimi then denied the timing of the proposed peace talks had been finalized. He said he must first visit Qatar and Turkey — two key supporters of the rebellion — and then meet with U.S. and Russian officials in Geneva before a formal date will be announced.