Syrian opposition coalition agrees to attend Geneva peace talks

‘This is a big step forward and an important one,’ says US secretary of state

Free Syrian Army fighters resting in a safehouse in the Mouazafeen neighbourhood in Deir al-Zor, eastern Syria, earlier this week.  Photograph: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

Free Syrian Army fighters resting in a safehouse in the Mouazafeen neighbourhood in Deir al-Zor, eastern Syria, earlier this week. Photograph: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

Tue, Nov 12, 2013, 01:00


The western and Arab-backed expatriate opposition Syrian National Coalition yesterday announced it would attend US-Russian-sponsored peace talks in Geneva with president Bashar al-Assad’s government if certain conditions are met.

In addition to its long-standing demand that Dr Assad “will have no role in the transitional period and future of Syria”, the coalition said ahead of talks the government should allow corridors for humanitarian aid to reach besieged areas and release detainees, particularly women and children.

US secretary of state John Kerry promptly responded by saying, “This is a big step forward and an important one.” Negotiations have been stalled since May by divisions within the coalition.

The government has said it would attend the proposed conference but has balked at negotiating with “terrorists,” its term for armed opposition factions.

Officials have also argued that any agreement would not involve Dr Assad stepping down although the declared objective of the proposed conference is the formation of a transitional authority with full executive powers. No date has been fixed for the conference but its sponsors, the US and Russia, are pressing for it to convene before the end of the year.


Pressure to negotiate
The coalition is under growing pressure to negotiate. Last month former Syrian deputy prime minister Abdullah Dardari, now a UN official, held a meeting in Beirut of 170 Syrians representing opposing sides.

The Syria-based Coalition of Forces for Peaceful Change, which groups independent figures with long-standing government opponents, has warned that the conference could be the “last chance” to resolve the conflict and called for an immediate ceasefire.

Analysts argue that an accord with Iran over its nuclear programme could boost chances of ending the Syrian conflict.

The coalition, which has no following in Syria itself, has dispatched envoys to rebel-held areas in an effort to convince units affiliated with the Free Syrian Army to support the Geneva talks. Nineteen fundamentalist groups, most loosely associated with the Free Army, have not only denounced the talks but also said that participants would be guilty of “treason”.

A rebel calling himself Abu Nidal, claiming to represent the Free Army-affiliated al-Habib Mustafa Brigade in Damascus, said his group rejects the conference as it “does not meet our aspirations”. It is estimated that there are 1,000-2,000 armed groups involved in the conflict.

A deal has been reached between the government and armed groups to ease a six-week blockade on Qudsaya, an insurgent-held town northwest of Damascus, permitting food and flour to reach civilians.