Syrian peace conference must include rebels and opposition, says Brahami

Talks likely to take place next month will involve a range of Syrian voices

United Nations peace envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi speaks during a news conference after meeting Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati at the Grand Serail, the government headquarters, in Beirut earlier this month.  Photograph: Mohamed Azakir / Reuters

United Nations peace envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi speaks during a news conference after meeting Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati at the Grand Serail, the government headquarters, in Beirut earlier this month. Photograph: Mohamed Azakir / Reuters


UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi insists there will be only two Syrian delegations – government and opposition – at the proposed US and Russian-sponsored peace conference and that the opposition must send a “convincing delegation”.

This means that the western- and Arab-backed expatriate Syrian National Coalition, recognised by 150 countries as representing the Syrian people, will sit on a delegation with domestic opposition and rebel figures prepared to join, Mr Brahimi’s representative, Mokhtar Lamani, told The Irish Times.

Policy shift
Acceptance that the coalition does not speak for all Syrians amounts to a shift in the policy of western and Arab powers, which supported the formation of this body in the expectation that it would represent the entire opposition at any peace conference.

Established in Qatar in 2012, the coalition has also had to give up the notion that its leaders can “sit in five-star hotels in Istanbul” and expect to “ride into Damascus on the backs of US tanks” as Iraq’s exiled opposition did in 2003.

The largest domestic opposition group, the leftist National Co-ordination Committees Board, might join the joint delegation but its affiliate, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which controls large swathes of territory in the northeast, calls for a separate delegation, as does Building the Syrian State, another local organisation.

Mr Lamani said “every Syrian would like to attend” and suggested that the venue would have to be as large as a “football field” if all the hopefuls claiming to represent “70 per cent of Syrians” are invited.

Mr Brahimi also insists all external actors should attend, including Iran, despite opposition from the US and the coalition.

Invitations to the conference will be issued and its date decided when US foreign minister John Kerry, his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and Mr Brahimi meet on November 25th, although a mid-December date has been mooted.

Unlike the first Geneva conference, attended only by outside powers in June 2012, Syrians will be key actors in the coming gathering, dubbed “Geneva II”, although the external powers involved in proxy wars inside Syria will be present.

Geneva II has two objectives: to maintain the unity of Syria and guarantee that the future of the country will be decided by its citizens. To achieve these ends the country must be immunised from external intervention, said Mr Lamani.

Syrians insist the goal of the conference must be implementation of a ceasefire, release of prisoners by all sides, and a steady flow of humanitarian assistance. Although these elements were included in the plan put forward by Geneva I in June 2012, there was no implementation, and the situation on the ground and on the international scene has changed over the past 16 months.

Islamic emirate
Nine million people have left their homes and there are 2,000 armed groups, including radical jihadis, who seek to establish in Syria a base for an “Islamic emirate” for the entire Muslim world rather than create a new system of governance for Syria. Jihadis have taken over and administered territory while the western-backed rebel Free Syrian Army has fought less well and failed to create alternative structures and the coalition has no popular following in Syria.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Mr Lavrov urged Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad and presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban to ensure assistance to homeless civilians and to channel aid to those trapped by fighting. Mr Mekdad praised Russia’s preparations for Geneva II and said talks should be conducted “without conditions”.

Mr Lavrov said he saw “more realism” in the opposition coalition which has demanded assurances that President Bashar al-Assad would be removed from power. He hopes to meet coalition head Ahmad Jarba in coming days. Iranian deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, also in Moscow, reassured the Syrian delegation of Tehran’s backing for the government.

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