January 19, 2014
By Alex Simon
The Syrian National Coalition voted Saturday to attend the Geneva II peace talks—slated to begin Wednesday in Montreaux, Switzerland—but a walkout by over a third of the Coalition’s membership raised questions about its ability to broadly represent even Syria’s opposition in exile, let alone armed factions inside the country.
The final vote count Saturday in Istanbul was 58 in favor of attending and 14 opposed, with two abstentions and one blank ballot. This tally, however, did not include the votes of 44 members who walked out of the Coalition’s meeting. Thus, while the 58 ‘Yes’ votes comprised a majority of the 73 votes cast, they represented less than half of the Coalition’s total membership of 119.
Coalition spokesman Louay Safi played down the walkout at a press conference in Turkey, telling reporters that “the absolute majority voted in favor of going to Geneva and being part of the sides on the negotiating table.”
The goal of the long-delayed talks is to begin the process of negotiating a transitional government based on the mutual consent of two delegations—one from the Syrian regime and another from the opposition.
The Coalition, however, has been bitterly divided over the question of whether to attend the talks, with members fearing that their participation in negotiations with slim prospects for success could destroy the scant credibility they retain among Syrian civilians and armed opposition factions.
Syrians in the Idlib town of Kafr Nabl send a message to the opposition in exile.
Courtesy of Twitter user @MillerMENA.
Safi sought to allay concerns regarding the disconnect between the Coalition and rebel groups within Syria, claiming that three moderate rebel formations—including the recently formed, Free Syrian Army-aligned Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front and Jaysh al-Mujahideen—had expressed their desire “to have some representation within the delegation.”
Yet Jaysh al-Mujahideen subsequently issued a statement denying that it had agreed to support Geneva, declaring that “to this point, we have not published any official decision or stance” regarding the negotiations.
Meanwhile, Islam Alloush, a spokesman for the Islamic Front—a powerful coalition of seven hardline Islamist groups—dismissed any idea that his group might participate in the talks as “completely detached from reality.”
The Islamic Front has been a vociferous opponent of the Geneva process, with Zahran Alloush, the Front’s military chief, going as far as to suggest that conference participants from both the regime and the opposition could be placed on a “wanted list” for targeting.
For his part, Salim Idriss—head of the FSA’s Supreme Military Council (SMC)—endorsed the conference, stating that the opposition delegation “must adhere to the goals of Syrian revolution, chief among them expelling Assad and his clique from power and excluding them from any role in Syria’s future.”
Idriss’s endorsement represents a stark reversal from his position just two months ago, when he insisted that the FSA would not be party to any negotiations.
The vote came against the backdrop of intense pressure from Washington and its allies, who insist that direct negotiations are the only way to wind down Syria’s nearly three-year-old civil war. Western states have hinted that a refusal to participate would jeopardize future assistance, and reports have circulated that Turkey threatened to close its border to supplies and fighters transiting to northern Syria if the opposition did not attend the talks.
The long-awaited talks are set to commence even as violence continues to escalate inside Syria. The past month has brought with it a disturbing escalation in the regime’s use of “barrel bombs,” do-it-yourself incendiaries made by filling oil drums with explosives and shrapnel.
The crude but destructive technology killed over 500 people—most of them civilians—in Aleppo in the second half of December, and has more recently been deployed in the Damascus suburb of Daraya and in the northwestern province of Idlib.
The Syrian government on Friday stated its willingness to pursue a ceasefire and prisoner exchange in Aleppo, but Kerry dismissed the offer as an attempt to divert attention from Geneva II’s core goal of establishing a transitional government of which Assad would not be a part.
“It’s not going to happen,” Kerry said Friday, referring to the notion that Assad might play a role in Syria’s future.
Moscow has ratcheted up its support for the Assad government in recent weeks, supplying Damascus with equipment including armored vehicles and drones while also vetoing a UN Security Council resolution condemning the use of barrel bombs and Scud missiles against civilian populations.
Russian Interfax news agency quoted Assad as having told Russian MPs visiting Damascus that his departure from power “is not under discussion.”
Assad’s office described the quote as inaccurate, but did not elaborate.
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