BEIRUT – The U.S. and Europe are putting intense pressure on the main Syrian opposition group to attend a long-delayed peace conference aimed at ending Syria’s civil war, even though agreeing to join the talks could irreparably split the already-fragmented opposition in exile.
The Syrian National Coalition appears to be getting support from its patrons in the Persian Gulf for its demands of key guarantees before it consents to take part in peace talks. Chief among those backers is regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia, which is growing more frustrated with its American ally.
A meeting Tuesday between the Syrian opposition and 11 of its foreign supporters, including the U.S., provided a venue for Washington to press its case. But the coalition, which has been deeply frustrated by what it sees as the West’s paltry aid for the rebellion, did not bend. Instead, it presented a list of demands that made the already-slim chances of the peace talks going ahead look bleak at best.
The U.S. and Russia, which support opposing sides in the conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people, have been trying for months to bring the Syrian government and its opponents to the table for negotiations in Geneva aimed at ending the war. But with the fighting deadlocked, neither the regime of President Bashar Assad nor the rebels showed any interest in compromise, forcing the meeting to be repeatedly postponed.
The idea regained traction after the U.S.-Russian agreement last month for Syria to give up its chemical weapons following a deadly sarin attack on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21. With the West threatening military strikes, Syria quickly agreed to the deal.
The U.N. Security Council resolution that enshrined that agreement also endorsed a road map for a political transition and called for an international peace conference in Geneva to be convened as soon as possible.
While the U.S. and Europe continue to press for peace talks, nothing has shifted fundamentally in the conflict that would prompt either the government or the opposition to negotiate. The war remains a bloody grind as rebels and government troops battle block by block and field by field, seesawing back and forth.
Assad himself cast doubt Monday on the prospects for Geneva, saying the factors that would help the conference succeed are not yet in place. Speaking to Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen TV, he said it’s not clear who would represent the opposition, or what credibility opposition representatives would have inside Syria.
The government has kept its options open on Geneva. Some officials have said all opposition groups should be represented, while others have refused to deal with those who called for foreign strikes against Syria — which would rule out the coalition.
Assad has stuck to one point throughout: a refusal to talk with “terrorists,” the term the government uses for those trying to topple him.
For the coalition, which is riven by competing factions, the stakes for agreeing to go to Geneva are much higher. According to veteran opposition figure Kamal Labwani, it’s nothing short of an existential crisis.
“The coalition will either decide not to go or it will be split, and that could spell its end,” Labwani said. “Those who should go are people who are (fighting) on the ground. The battle is between the fighters and the regime. When you want to solve a problem, you solve it between the parties that are fighting.”
Labwani’s comments point to one of the crucial issues for the coalition: credibility.
Fighters in Syria — many of whom reject negotiations with the regime — have accused the opposition leaders in exile of being out of touch. Last month, nearly a dozen prominent rebel factions publicly broke with the coalition, laying bare the group’s credibility problem inside Syria. More rebel brigades have since followed suit.
Nevertheless, Labwani said the coalition is facing “massive pressure from the Americans” to go to Geneva — comments echoed by three other opposition figures.
One senior coalition member, Ahmad Ramadan, said the U.S. is pushing the coalition to drop its preconditions and go to Geneva to present its “demands, conditions and visions there,” and that Washington has promised its support.
“We consider that this suggestion does not carry any guarantees with enough credibility,” he said, adding that U.S. assurances ring hollow after the Obama administration failed to carry out a military attack against Assad following the Aug. 21 chemical attack.
The issue of the Syrian leader’s fate — and what role he should have in a transitional period — has been a key sticking point.
The coalition has said that it will only negotiate if it is agreed from the start that Assad will leave power before the transition period. The government has rejected demands that Assad step aside, saying he will stay at least until the end of his term in mid-2014, and will then decide whether to seek re-election.
Ramadan said the coalition has found greater sympathy from its backers in the gulf.
“Gulf states understand the stance of the coalition and believe that as long as the conference does not lead to the formation of a transitional government or authority with full powers that coincides with Bashar Assad’s departure, then the conference will not be useful,” he said.
Despite Western pressure on the coalition to join the talks, the more important gatekeepers are in many ways the gulf states led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar — both major backers of the Syrian political opposition and pipelines for arms and money to the rebels.
The gulf leaders appear highly unlikely to support any negotiation that would treat the Assad government as an equal partner or raise the possibility it could remain in some form under a peace deal.
The coalition is scheduled to meet Nov. 1-2 in Istanbul to decide whether to take part in the talks. That gathering may showcase the growing divide between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. that could become a defining factor of Middle East affairs.
Saudi Arabia, which has long preferred to conduct its foreign policy behind closed down, has embarked on a notable shift to public moves in protest of U.S. decisions that Saudi officials consider contrary to their interests. Saudi Arabia was openly dismayed after Washington backed down on military strikes in Syria.
Last week, Saudi Arabia capped a stunning — and apparently pre-scripted — slap at the U.S. and its allies by turning down one of the nonpermanent seats on the Security Council, citing the U.N.’s inability to punish Assad as a reason. The subtext also included Saudi displeasure with the historic outreach between President Barack Obama and Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani.
For Saudi Arabia, Assad’s downfall is a way to extend its influence beyond the gulf and deal a strong blow to Iran, its regional rival.
“Syria is a strategic prize for Saudi Arabia and it will do whatever it takes, even if that means standing up to the U.S.,” said Theodore Karasik, a security and political affairs analyst at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “Increasingly, Saudi officials are seeing Washington as an obstacle and not a partner.”