February 10, 2014
By Alex Simon, Osama Abu Zeid and Abdulrahman al-Masri
AMMAN: The opposition Syrian National Coalition is working behind the scenes to broaden its base of support as the second round of the Geneva II peace talks begins, courting at least one major opposition faction that refused to attend the conference’s opening round last month.
Coalition chief Ahmad Jarba traveled to Cairo Friday to meet with Hassan Abdel Azim, chairman of the Damascus-based National Coordination Committee (NCC)—the main group within Syria’s “internal opposition”—to discuss incorporating the NCC into the opposition negotiating team prior to Geneva II’s second round, which began on Monday.
The NCC, an alliance of leftist and nationalist parties, declined to participate in the first round of talks, which concluded on January 31 with little tangible progress. The Committee was established in June 2011, three months after the start of Syria’s initially peaceful uprising.
Since its formation, the group has been more receptive than the main opposition-in-exile—first the Syrian National Council and now the Coalition—to the notion of dialogue with the Syrian regime and the pursuit of a negotiated settlement, and has objected to calls to arm the Free Syrian Army.
Despite this conciliatory bent, the NCC announced in January that it would not participate in the Geneva II talks. The exact reasoning behind the NCC’s initial decision was not clear, but the group’s leaders alluded to disagreements with the Coalition.
The Cairo meeting came and went with little media coverage, but chief Coalition negotiator Hadi al-Bahra said that he expected the NCC and other opposition groups to play an integral role in the new round of negotiations.
“We are currently coordinating with [the NCC],” al-Bahra told Syria Direct after his delegation’s meeting with United Nations Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on Monday. “We expect that they will participate within the opposition delegation.”
Al-Bahri said he expects other factions within the Syrian opposition to join the Coalition as it seeks to build momentum for a transitional government in Syria.
“We have also received a number of communications from other political groups expressing their support for the Coalition delegation and their readiness to play an advisory role within the negotiating delegation.”
The NCC has been publicly circumspect in its official rhetoric toward the conference’s second round. The group released a statement Saturday emphasizing “the importance of the [NCC’s] role and participation in the Geneva II conference,” but stated that it would withhold judgment on the talks until the Coalition clarifies its position toward the NCC’s political agenda.
NCC Chairman Abdel Azim told the pro-Assad Lebanese news channel al-Mayadeen that the opposition’s representation needs to be more inclusive.
“We must restructure the opposition delegation to ensure that it is balanced and widely accepted,” he said, noting the importance of “adding other actors” as well.
UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with government and opposition delegations Monday as the Geneva II conference’s second round began in Switzerland. Photo courtesy of @UNGeneva.
Monday’s talks were limited to closed-door meetings in which Brahimi met separately with the regime and opposition delegations. Al-Bahri told Syria Direct that the two delegations would meet face-to-face on Tuesday.
The opening round of negotiations last month was marked by uncompromising positions from both delegations, with the opposition insisting that President Bashar al-Assad must leave power and the government delegation maintaining its stance that the conference should focus on combating “terrorism.”
The question of whether to participate in Geneva II has been a major sticking point within the ranks of Syria’s political opposition. Last month, the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition voted 58-14 in favor of attending the talks, but only after 44 members—over one third of the body’s membership—walked out of the internal referendum.
The Syrian National Council, one of the largest blocs within the Coalition, subsequently announced its withdrawal from the umbrella group.
Meanwhile, activists inside Syria remain skeptical that negotiations can progress while government forces continue to ramp up their assault on rebel-held Syrian cities.
“Anyone who wants to negotiate seriously has to stop dropping barrel bombs,” said a citizen journalist in Aleppo, who asked to remain anonymous.
“We demanded that [the Coalition] not go to the second round of Geneva before barrel bombs had stopped falling… This is not fertile ground [for a settlement].”
Two rebel militias struck a similar tone in a statement released Sunday: “We kept silent during the negotiating period in order to see if it might produce some beneficial results, only to find ourselves bombarded, subjected to murder, destruction and displacement, not even sparing small children, women or the elderly,” reads the joint statement by Jaish al-Mujahideen and the Islamic Union for Soldiers of the Levant.
Jaish al-Mujahideen and the Islamic Union released a similar statement prior to the first round of talks in January. The previous statement, however, was also signed by the Islamic Front—arguably Syria’s most powerful armed opposition group, which has been conspicuously silent in the lead-up to the new round of negotiations.
Given this widespread skepticism, the Syrian National Coalition’s recent efforts to bolster its ranks in Switzerland may be an attempt to reduce the group’s increasing isolation within Syria’s opposition, military and political alike.
Despite the Coalition’s shortcomings, some activists feel the group represents their only viable means to confront the Syrian government on the international stage.
“The Syrian people inside the country must support our opposition in exile despite its mistakes and shortcomings,” said Salar al-Kurdi, using the alias of a Kurdish activist in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah province, speaking with Syria Direct Monday via Skype.
“We must learn from our enemy, which rallies its supporters behind it every day, despite their knowing that it is tyrannical and criminal,” al-Kurdi said.
“In the end, our opposition is the one that represents the Syrian people before the international community.”
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