Low Expectations Cloud Start of Syria Talks

Assad regime and opposition stand far apart in demands.

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

Representatives of the Syrian regime and the opposition are to meet Wednesday for the first time at an international conference in Switzerland, the stated aim being to find a formula to end the Syrian civil war that has left over 150,000 dead, hundreds of thousands wounded, and millions of people homeless.

However, the Syrian people, who loathe the war and around a third of whom have fled their homes, don’t believe this round of talks will lead to any breakthrough or plan that will end the bloodshed, sources say. The common view is that the talks will lead to an exchange of prisoners and perhaps some localized cease-fires, as well as an agreement on the need to pressure the armed militias identified with Al-Qaida and the thousands of foreign mercenaries in Syria.

A senior Syrian opposition figure, describing himself as an external adviser to the opposition delegation, told Haaretz the opposition is convinced that the conference is taking place due to international pressure on the parties, and not out of a sincere desire to effect change.

“The positions of both sides are so far apart that it is impossible to bridge them at this point,” the source said. “The opposition is talking about a transitional sovereign government without [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, while Assad is submitting his candidacy for president and sending his highest-level team that is loyal to him personally, while talking about the need to fight terrorism.”

According to this senior official, the assessment is that at the end of the conference, the two sides will issue statements that are convenient for them. “The regime will point to the fact that it met with the opposition, while the opposition will present what from its perspective is the positive side – that the regime at least no longer presents itself as the only alternative in Syria.”

One sign of the confusion is the fact that no list has been released naming the members of the opposition delegation, which only this past weekend decided to attend the conference, a decision that led to another split, after two central factions in the coalition, the Syrian National Council and the Local Coordination Committees, announced they were boycotting the parley.

It is believed that the opposition delegation will be led by Ahmed Assi al-Jarba, chairman of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, and that it will have 15 members, including Michel Kilo, an opposition activist since the era of Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, as well as Suheir Atassi, a leading female opposition figure since the start of the rebellion in 2011. The delegation will also include field commanders from the moderate militias that have battled the regime primarily in southern Syria, and who have been leaving the country via Jordan over the past few days en route to Switzerland.

The regime will be represented by its senior diplomatic team, headed by Foreign Minister Walid Muallem. It will include Dr. Butheina Shaaban, who has been a senior presidential adviser since the elder Assad was in power, Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi and Syrian Ambassador to the UN Bashar Ja’afari.

The UN team coordinating the conference has been working intensively to iron out the logistics and symbols for the conference, with details such as who will sit where, who will speak when, and which flags will be flown sparking arguments. Observers say that to prevent friction, it is likely that no flags will hang in the conference hall. It is believed that the first speaker will be UN envoy to Syria Akhdar Al-Ibrahimi, to be followed by Muallem and al-Jarba.

After opening in Montreaux, a tourist town on Lake Geneva, the parties will move to Geneva itself at the end of the week for a round of closed talks.

A Western official involved in the preparations said the main objective of the conference is to build a foundation of trust between the two sides, after which a timetable will be set for additional talks that will proceed gradually.

“All the parties understand that there are deep and serious disputes here,” the official said. “But the expectation, particularly on the part of the Russians, is that these meetings will create a dynamic and make progress on various issues, starting with a gradual cease-fire and prisoner releases, the return of refugees and other confidence-building measures that could lead to an agreed-upon outline for a diplomatic solution.”

One issue that is still unclear is how much the conference and the decisions made there will influence what’s happening on the ground, particularly given that many of the dozens of factions and militias battling each other in Syria are not loyal to any of the parties convening. The absence of Iran, which was disinvited from the conference by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier this week, is significant to supporters of the regime, since Tehran has great influence over the decision-making apparatus in Damascus.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif harshly criticized the decision of the UN to rescind an invitation to attend the conference. He said Ban was not brave enough to cite a clear reason for disinviting Iran. Zarif said Ban bowed to pressure by the West.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch on Tuesday accused the world powers of undermining efforts to bring Bashar Assad before the International Criminal Court.

The group said the United States had focused too strongly on bringing the warring parties together for peace talks at the expense of putting “real pressure” on Assad’s regime to end atrocities and hold those responsible to account.

“We cannot afford to wait for the distant prospect of a peace accord before the killing of 5,000 civilians a month comes to an end,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told reporters as he presented the group’s annual report in Berlin. “The mass atrocities being committed in Syria should be a parallel focus of the peace process.”

Human Rights Watch said the United States had “its own reasons” for opposing the referral of Syria to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, including concerns that this could have legal implications for Israel, lest Syria turn and file a claim with the court regarding Israel’s settlements on the Golan Heights.

Swiss police block a road leading to the Palace Hotel, site of the Geneva II peace talks. Credit: Reuters
Leader of Syria's opposition National Coalition Ahmad al-Jarba arrives in Geneva for the peace talks. Credit: Reuters

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