Saudi-backed Syria rebels boycott Geneva talks

Long-awaited negotiations to end the five-year war in Syria begin in Geneva today

The Saudi-backed Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee yesterday decided to boycott today's long-awaited opening of talks in Geneva to end the five-year war in Syria.

The talks could go ahead with independent opposition groups, but the effort to reach a negotiated solution would be seriously weakened without the Saudi-formed committee, which claims to represent more than 100 groups.

Aware that continuing the conflict is not an option due to the flood of Syrian refugees entering Europe and the threat of extremist attacks, the US, France, Britain and Germany had urged the committee to dispatch its negotiators.

Earlier it had been reported that the committee would send a small representation, headed by chairman Riad Hijab, for "pre-talks" on implementing demands for an end to bombardments, sieges and blockades of insurgent-held areas in the war-torn country.


Impossible talks

These committee’s demands were submitted to UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon as conditions for the participation of the negotiating team. But they have been impossible to carry out without talks between the government and armed groups, some supported by

Saudi Arabia





and western powers.

The Riyadh negotiating team is led by a defected air force general, Asaad al-Zoubi, an officer of the Southern Command alliance, and Mahmoud Alloush from the Saudi-founded Army of Islam. The latter is regarded as a "terrorist" group by the Syrian government and its allies Russia and Iran.

The committee’s boycott was announced after UN envoy Staffan de Mistura’s spokeswoman denied reports that the talks would be postponed and the government delegation, headed by UN ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari, had left Damascus for Geneva.

The Syrian government had agreed to attend talks when proposed for January 25th by the UN, the US and Russia. Syrian Democratic Council spokesman Haytham Manna announced that 15 members of independent secular opposition groups and 16 advisers were in Geneva and ready to take part.

He reiterated that he would not attend because the leaders of his Kurdish partners have been excluded at the insistence of Turkey, which claims they are associated with Kurdish rebels fighting for autonomy.

In a an attempt to secure the participation of the Saudi- backed opposition, Mr de Mistura altered the status of invitees and the format of the talks.

On Monday he had declared they would not only begin today for invitees ready to attend, but would also include a range of opposition factions, in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 2254.

Mr de Mistura said participation was unconditional, dismissing the demands of the High Negotiations Committee, which also claims to be the sole representative of the opposition.

Separate rooms

He had said the opposition would be inclusive and separate rooms would be allocated for the government delegation, the Riyadh team, independents and civil society activists and women, indicating that they would be treated equally. He and his aides would shuttle among these participants.

However, the Riyadh faction – which also has US and European backing – had emerged as the lead opposition group while independents, civil society activists and women had been relegated to the status of advisers.

In anticipation of the talks, Mr de Mistura broadcast a message in Arabic to the Syrian people pledging to return “stability and peace and dignity” to Syria.

“Five years of this conflict have been too much,” he said. “The horror is in front of everyone’s eyes . . . You have seen enough conferences. This one cannot fail.”

He called upon Syrians to make participants hear their cries for an end to war.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times