BEIRUT: The U.S. and Europe are putting intense pressure on the main Syrian opposition group to attend a long-delayed peace conference aimed at ending Syria’s civil war, even though agreeing to join the talks could irreparably split the already-fragmented opposition in exile.
The Syrian National Coalition appears to be getting support from its patrons in the Gulf for its demands of key guarantees before it consents to take part in peace talks. Chief among those backers is regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia, which is growing more frustrated with its American ally.
A meeting Tuesday between the Syrian opposition and 11 of its foreign supporters, including the U.S., provided a venue for Washington to press its case. But the coalition, which has been deeply frustrated by what it sees as the West’s paltry aid for the rebellion, did not bend. Instead, it presented a list of demands that made the already-slim chances of the peace talks going ahead look bleak at best.
The U.S. and Russia, which support opposing sides in the conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people, have been trying for months to bring the Syrian government and its opponents to the table for negotiations in Geneva aimed at ending the war. But with the fighting deadlocked, neither the regime of President Bashar Assad nor the rebels showed any interest in compromise, forcing the meeting to be repeatedly postponed.
The idea regained traction after the U.S.-Russian agreement last month for Syria to give up its chemical weapons following a deadly sarin attack on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21. With the West threatening military strikes, Syria quickly agreed to the deal.
The U.N. Security Council resolution that enshrined that agreement also endorsed a roadmap for a political transition and called for an international peace conference in Geneva to be convened as soon as possible.
While the U.S. and Europe continue to press for peace talks, nothing has shifted fundamentally in the conflict that would prompt either the government or the opposition to negotiate. The war remains a bloody grind as rebels and government troops battle block by block and field by field, seesawing back and forth.
Assad himself cast doubt Monday on the prospects for Geneva, saying the factors that would help the conference succeed are not yet in place. Speaking to Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen TV, he said it’s not clear who would represent the opposition, or what credibility opposition representatives would have inside Syria.
The government has kept its options open on Geneva. Some officials have said all opposition groups should be represented, while others have refused to deal with those who called for foreign strikes against Syria — which would rule out the coalition.
Assad has stuck to one point throughout: a refusal to talk with “terrorists” — the people trying to topple him.
For the coalition, which is riven by competing factions, the stakes for agreeing to go to Geneva are high. Veteran opposition figure Kamal Labwani said, “The coalition will either decide not to go or it will be split, and that could spell its end.”