The Bashar al-Assad regime and the Syrian National Coalition, Syria’s Western-backed political opposition, committed this week to peace talks aimed at pursuing the lofty goal of a mutually agreeable transitional government that can end the two-and-a-half-year war.
“At long last and for the first time, the Syrian government and opposition will meet at the negotiating table instead of the battlefield,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday as he announced the long-delayed summit for Jan. 22 in Geneva. Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby promptly affirmed his support for the planned conference and said his only regret was the long delay in scheduling the talks.
But comments from world leaders wrangling for a solution to the war belie a bleak reality: almost no one believes the long-anticipated talks will succeed – not even the Coalition itself.
“I really don’t think the prospects of a successful meeting are there – the gaps between the two sides are huge,” Najib Ghadbian, the Coalition’s special representative to the United States, told Al Jazeera. The Coalition will go to Geneva, Ghadbian said, to push for delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged cities and for the release of some of Syria’s tens of thousands of political prisoners. “From our point of view,” he said, “we have nothing really to lose.”
But the rebels actually fighting Syria’s war are more fervently opposed and say they will boycott the long-anticipated peace talks, the successor to the first Geneva conference in June of last year that proved largely ineffective.
“Conditions are not suitable for running the Geneva II talks at the given date and we, as a military and revolutionary force, will not participate in the conference,” Gen. Salim Idriss, head of the Coalition-partnered Free Syrian Army, told Al Jazeera in a phone interview earlier this week.
The FSA is represented in the Coalition, a political body incorporating members from Syria’s various ethnic and religious groups that has designs on ruling a post-Assad Syria. The two groups do not always see eye-to-eye, and rebel fighters have long accused the Coalition, which operates in safety from Istanbul, of being disconnected from the reality in Syria.
A no-show from the FSA in Geneva would make for an unorthodox peace conference, with none of the armed factions fighting to upend Assad expected to participate.
It isn’t that the FSA and the rest of Syria’s mostly Sunni armed revolutionaries don’t want peace, but they are unwilling to budge on one stipulation: an end to four decades of authoritarian rule by the Assad family and their Shia-offshoot Alawite clan. They demand that if their bloody struggle, which has claimed over 115,000 lives and displaced more than 2 million, is finally going to end through concessions at peace talks, Assad’s departure must first be guaranteed.
“We won’t go if Geneva doesn’t say clearly Assad must go,” said Idriss, who also rejected the idea of a ceasefire during the conference.
Assad, of course, says there is no chance he will step down and committed to send delegates to Geneva only if there were no such preconditions.
“The official Syrian delegation is not going to Geneva to surrender power,” official media outlet SANA quoted a foreign ministry source as saying Wednesday. The source called demands that Assad be excluded from any transitional government “delusional.”
Coalition president Ahmed Jarba long maintained his group would spurn peace talks unless Assad stepped down, but backtracked this week. The Coalition says it is ready to talk, but that it will still not accept a transition government with Assad at the helm.
“There are certain red lines the Coalition will never cross,” Ghadbian said. “First of these is to not allow any hope for Assad in the transition or the future of Syria.”
Division and mutiny
The most predictable opposition to Geneva comes from Al-Qaeda-linked extremist factions ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, which have openly clashed with FSA and other moderate groups in Northern Syria and have stated no intention to pursue peace.
Then there are the once-loyal hardline – but not extremist – Islamist rebel groups who have mutinied from the Coalition in recent months.
In September, thirteen Islamist factions, some loosely tied to the FSA, uploaded a YouTube video denouncing the Syrian Coalition. In October, when rumors began to circulate about the peace conference, a bloc of mostly Islamist rebel groups excoriated the idea of sitting for talks with the regime in a YouTube video.
“We consider it just another part of the conspiracy to throw our revolution off track and to abort it,” said Ahmad Eissa al-Sheikh, commander of the Suqur al-Sham Brigade, in the video message.
Though the situation on the ground is in a constant state of flux, with foreign fighters coming to the aid of both sides and alignments constantly shifting, analysts believe these Islamist groups likely constitute the bulk of the armed insurgents. They say the West-facing Coalition is losing control over an increasingly Islamist insurgency in Syria.
“[The secession] has served to concretely underline what has been clear to many for some time: that the Syrian Coalition has represented an opposition leadership far removed from what has become an increasingly Islamist-led insurgency,” Charles Lister, an analyst for IHS Janes, wrote in a commentary for Syria Deeply.
In a separate event, six of the most prominent Islamist factions merged to become the Syrian Islamic Front on Nov. 22 in a bid to better coordinate efforts. A commander and former spokesman of one of the merged factions told Al Jazeera his new group had not crafted a statement about Geneva II but offered a copy of the Islamic Front’s charter.
“The Islamic Front will not participate in any political process that does not recognize the authority of God,” reads the charter, which outlines the group’s vision of an Islamic state in Syria.
The Syrian Coalition, however, maintains that even hardliners among the armed groups deserve representation in the opposition delegation at Geneva – if they’ll consent. “Having someone with a hardline position as part of the delegation would mean that nobody can question their credibility or accuse them of being soft,” Ghadbian said.
While Coalition officials insist differences between the political and military wings of the revolution can be overcome, the group’s supporters are worried the armed uprising is slipping from the moderate opposition’s grips.
Ali Amin Suwaid, a political officer with the Syrian Revolution General Commission, a parallel opposition coalition, told Al Jazeera the Coalition was playing a dangerous game by attending the conference given its “legitimacy crisis.”
“The Coalition cannot dare to accept any result that does not include the clear withdrawal of the Assad regime,” said Suwaid, who lives in Kuwait but travels back to Syria on a regular basis. “Otherwise, it will commit political suicide.”
Culture of distrust
The Coalition knows it faces an uphill battle to rally support from Syria’s myriad insurgent factions ahead of the Geneva talks – and some things, like the Syrian government’s calculated media campaign, are out of the their hands.
Abdelhamid Zakaria, a commander and spokesman for the FSA Joint-Chiefs in Northern Syria, told Al Jazeera over Skype that the FSA will boycott in part because it does not wish to be involved in futile negotiations that Assad can spin in his favor.
With Jarba and his Coalition scrambling to shore up support, the Syrian government has jumped on the chance to frame itself as the only side working for peace.
“Unfortunately, the divided opposition has still not been able to unite and form a delegation,” Syrian ambassador to Russia Riyad Haddad told news agency Interfax on Thursday. “Every day, we hear the opposition’s voices: some don’t want to participate and others are setting conditions.”
Najib Ghadbian said the legacy of do-nothing peace talks in the region doesn’t help the peace effort, either.
“There is a general cultural distrust of any political negotiation,” he said. “When people think of conferences, when they think of Geneva, they think of the Palestinian-Israeli talks, which are open ended and don’t produce results. So there are a lot of people we have to educate about that,” he said, including the FSA and Islamist factions.
Meanwhile, war rages on across Syria. At least 230 people were killed on Thursday, according to the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights, which documents casualties. The UN has confirmed an unprecedented polio outbreak and said this week that half of Syrians now rely on foreign aid to survive.
Until Assad is out of the picture, however, the armed rebels say they won’t lay down their arms. The talks may be ill-fated but the vision of a post-Assad Syria remains in sight.
Whoever is able to achieve that feat – be it the Coalition in Geneva or armed groups on the ground – will emerge as the revolution’s heroes, said Suweid.
“Whether [through] peace talks or war, the party that makes this real will be the leader of Syria.”