Mismatch at talks as government team faces off with disjointed Syrian opposition
United Damascus delegation contrasts with a coalition torn by regional rivalries
Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad is flanked by police officers after the second round of talks between Syrian government and opposition at UN HQ in Geneva. Photograph: Salvatore di Nolfi/EPA
The Syrian government and opposition delegations participating in UN-brokered talks aimed at ending the country’s civil war are unevenly matched. While Damascus’ delegation is united and enjoys the full support of the government and its allies, the coalition team is ill-sorted and has broad support of diverse allies with competing agendas.
Government delegation head, foreign minister Walid Muallem, is a veteran diplomat who has served in Britain, Saudi Arabia, and Spain as ambassador in the US. A political reformist, he took up his post in 2006.
His deputy Faisal Mekdad began his career with the International Union of Students, returned to Damascus and joined the foreign ministry, and rose to UN ambassador and his present post. In May last year, his 83-year old father was kidnapped in the restive Deraa province but was eventually freed.
Presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban, a PhD from Warwick University who spent a year as Fullbright professor at Duke University, taught English at Damascus University, before becoming translator for president Bashar al-Assad’s father and minister of expatriates.
A diplomat formerly posted to France and Indonesia, trilingual UN ambassador Bashar Jaafari is negotiator.
Delegation members belong to the ruling Baath Party and are regime loyalists.
While Damascus’ closest allies are Russia and Iran, which supply the government with arms, funds and political backing, the government also enjoys the support of China, Algeria, Iraq, the Lebanese Hizbullah movement and, to a certain extent, Egypt. Russia and Iran have pressed the government to participate in the Geneva talks, but their leverage is limited when it comes to extracting concessions from Damascus.
The opposition is represented by a rump expatriate National Coalition delegation, following the defection of most members of largest constituent, the Syrian National Council, dominated by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, as well as several respected independent figures.
The delegation contains a number of small “revolutionary” and personality-based factions, a tribal group, and National Council dissidents, as well as the national co-ordination committees, the coalition’s main Syria-based component.
The coalition has rejected pressure from UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi and Russia to expand representation on the delegation by recruiting figures from the domestic opposition, notably the 10-faction National Co-ordination Board and the Kurdish Democratic Union, which controls a large tract of territory in the northeast.
However, the delegation has recruited seven members from rebel forces fighting al-Qaeda affiliates in the north and in Deraa in the south.
Coalition leader Ahmed Jarba belongs to the powerful Shammar tribe with branches in Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. A former political prisoner, he was Riyadh’s candidate for the top job, which he won by defeating Qatar’s nominee.
Negotiator Hadi al-Bahra is an activist, hi-tech businessman based in Saudi Arabia, and vice-president of the Al-Waref Institute in Washington DC, linked to the conservative Hudson Institute think tank. Spokesman Louay Safi, a US citizen born in Damascus, is a scholar of Islam with reformist views and a Muslim rights activist.
Among the delegates are several well-known regime opponents: Michel Kilo, once a central figure in the reform movement; Haitham Maleh, veteran democracy advocate and exjudge; Souhair Atassi, a leading secular activist who resigned from the National Council after it was accused of corruption; and Rima Fleihan, exiled spokeswoman for the co-ordination committees.
Recognised by a number of countries as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and by the EU as the legitimate representative of the aspirations of the Syrian people, the coalition has the firm backing of the US, France and Britain.
The delegation relies on the advice of non-resident US ambassador in Damascus Robert Ford (set to retire at the end of this month) and a dozen political and media experts from Washington and London.
However, the coalition has been torn by rivalries between its main regional sponsors, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
An advocate of a military solution, Qatar has supported radical jihadi groups but has been politically sidelined by the Saudi takeover of the coalition.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia appear to be backing away from the military solution.
Host to the coalition’s military wing, the dysfunctional and now marginalised Free Syrian Army, Turkey has also allowed foreign fighters and weapons across its territory but is reconsidering its policy due to internal pressure to exit the conflict.
To counteract the rise of al- Qaeda-linked jihadis in Syria, Saudi Arabia has forged the Islamic Front from half a dozen fundamentalist groupings and issued a draconian anti-terrorism law barring Saudis from fighting in foreign conflicts.
Riyadh and Ankara say they favour the political solution envisaged by the talks but continue to feed the military solution, thereby giving mixed signals.
External input, however confused, undermines the coalition’s claim to represent the Syrian people, weakening its negotiating position and boosting the government’s contention Syria is the victim of foreign intervention and “terrorism.”