Syrian opposition remains divided on approach to Geneva peace talks

Foreign minister says Damascus government will attend next month’s conference


Syria’s deputy Syrian foreign minister Faisal Mekdad said yesterday the government would attend the US-Russian-sponsored peace conference set to convene on January 22nd in Geneva.

Expatriate and domestic opposition groups have yet to agree to form a single credible delegation and adopt a common approach to the talks.

Although it has no popular following in Syria, the Western- and Arab-backed expatriate National Coalition, based in Istanbul, insists on naming the delegation, while domestic opposition groups with small internal constituencies also demand a representative role.

Veteran figure Hassan Abdel Azim has told The Irish Times that his Syria-based umbrella grouping, the National Co-ordination Body for Democratic Change (NCB) consists of 10 independent secular parties.

“There are three main players: Istanbul, the NCB and the Kurdish Democratic Union, ” he says. The NCB is the only internal opposition party to control a stretch of Syrian territory, a strategic band along the Turkish and Iraqi borders.

“We are prepared to go to Geneva in a unified delegation made up of individuals [not identified by factions]. But this is not realistic. Istanbul rejects this idea. Istanbul claims to be the only opposition,” he said.

“We were the first in Syria to support a political solution and reject a military solution. We’re against both the government and the rebels.”

He believes the Syrian crisis will be resolved “after many meetings”. “The US fears al-Qaeda will take over if it topples the government.” Consequently, “the US supports a political solution.”

The NCB – which has followers in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus as well as abroad – has a settlement detailed plan. Its representative in Europe is Paris-based human rights campaigner Haitham Manna.

Louay Hussein, co-founder of domestic opposition group, Building the Syrian State, adopts a different approach. He says he will attend the conference if Syrians have the leading role but not if Geneva is to be “a platform for a Russo-US agreement”.

In his view, the conference will be “less important than the negotiations preceding it. Until now there is no agreement on the bases of the meeting. We cannot even see that it will happen.

“The selection of the Syrian delegation should not be in the hands of Russia and the US, which want only groups directed by them to take part,” said Mr Hussein, a political activist for the past 30 years, who was imprisoned from 1984-1991.

His group has refused to go to preparatory meetings in Moscow because the Russians back the government’s position.

“Geneva could reduce the fighting by about 40 per cent but the conflict will continue for many years. Syria has become a failed state. It will take years for things to go back to normal. [Radical fundamentalist] jihadis will be a problem for the whole region.

“The situation in Syria . . . cannot be blamed solely on Assad,” he stated. “The US, and Europe, following the US lead, fostered the conflict. Europe will pay a price. . . it is impossible for Europe to feed 10 million [now homeless] Syrians. There will be new waves of [Syrian] immigration to Europe.

“Europe should move quickly to resolve the Syrian conflict and protect itself.”