By Shuaib Anjarini
Al-Akhbar: The road to the upcoming Geneva II conference appears full of barriers and surprises. If the leaked reports that reached Al-Akhbar – holding that the United States and Russia have reached a deal to allow the Syrian National Coalition to form the opposition’s delegation – are true, then leading Syrian opposition figures are likely to boycott the meeting.
Syrian opposition sources have told Al-Akhbar that members of the diplomatic team of US Ambassador Robert Ford confirmed there was an American-Russian understanding to let the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (SNC) form the opposition’s delegation to the Geneva II conference. Other sources linked this development to Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan’s visit to Moscow.
“We know that an agreement of some kind was reached during Bandar’s visit to Moscow, but we don’t have any clear details,” one independent Syrian opposition figure who declined to be named said. He added, “If true, this will be a consolation prize offered to Saudi Arabia in order to hold the conference, and the Saudis in return will have to consent to Iranian participation.”
Speaking to Al-Akhbar, SNC member Khaled Nasser said, “I have no information about whether such an agreement has taken place or not yet, but that we will form the opposition’s delegation is inevitable, and this is what the communiqué of the Friends of Syria meeting in London last month stated.” Nasser stressed that for the SNC to be in charge of forming the delegation is a principal condition for going to Geneva, albeit not the only condition, saying, “The most important prerequisite is obtaining guarantees to form a transitional authority with full powers, including supervision of the army and security.”
Interestingly, Nasser was keen to mention the caveat “if Geneva takes place” in his statement. When asked what pushes him to believe the conference may not be held despite all indications otherwise, Nasser chose to repeat the mantra, “The regime is obstructing efforts to hold it,” adding that “[the regime] must implement confidence-building measures, end the siege on blockaded cities, release prisoners, and stop bombing Syrians.”
Nasser’s remarks were echoed by the position declared by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. In a statement issued on Sunday, December 8, the Islamist group said, “As the regime continues to aggravate humanitarian conditions, this hinders the formation of a favorable political climate, and makes all talk about Geneva II futile.” Aiming high, the Brotherhood then called for “compelling the regime to go to Geneva under an agreement governed by Chapter VII [of the UN charter], specifying the details of a transitional authority with full powers in which [the regime] has no role.”
However, the above is in sharp contrast with what Haytham Manna of the opposition National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC) told Al-Akhbar. Manna said, “Several months ago, the UN conducted a survey and found that the SNC at best had the support of 5 percent of Syrians, while the NCC had more than 13 percent support. Another survey was conducted two months later, and found that the SNC’s popularity declined to 3 percent, while the NCC’s rose to more than 20 percent.”
The problem, in Manna’s view, is not about holding Geneva II but is about whether or not it will succeed. He said, “To make it a success, a number of conditions must be satisfied, both subjective and objective. The most important subjective factor is that the opposition should form a convincing and competent delegation, and the most important objective factor is that obstacles to putting together a delegation that has the legitimacy of representing the largest possible segment of the Syrian people should be removed.”
Manna continued, “There are other important objective factors; the European community must lift economic sanctions on the Syrian people, and the regime must allow food to reach everyone and release all detainees. The militants must also release all hostages, including the two bishops, the nuns, and the women who were kidnapped in the northern countryside of Latakia.”
Manna explained that the American-Russian deal over Geneva stipulated that “the Russians would handle the regime’s delegation, and the Americans the opposition’s delegation, while each side has veto power and the right to request changes through Lakhdar Brahimi.” But at the same time, Manna denied knowing anything about a new American-Russian accord over this issue, and added, “If an agreement of this kind were indeed to be reached, then we will not go to a conference that is being thwarted in advance.”
In turn, head of the Building the Syrian State movement Louay Hussein declared a stance similar to the NCC’s. He told Al-Akhbar, “The Americans and their allies are endeavoring to have the delegation headed by the SNC. The Americans and the Russians called on us to participate under this arrangement, but we refused.”
Nevertheless, Hussein denied knowing about a new deal to entrust the task of forming the opposition delegation to the SNC. He said, “What we know is that the Americans requested for the SNC to head the delegation, while the Russians are urging the rest of the factions to refuse this.”
Hussein believes that Geneva “will not be a Syrian conference with international sponsorship, but an American-Russian conference attended by Syrians.” He then added, “Our position is clear: Our condition for participation is for us to be part of a delegation not chosen by either the Russians or the Americans. Otherwise, we will not participate. So far, we are not optimistic about the actual influence Syrians will have at the conference, and we believe that it will be nothing more than a platform to launch the agreements being hammered out now.”
“In this sense,” he continued, “We seek to be present in the ongoing efforts for Geneva by pressuring all international parties to dissuade them from completely marginalizing the Syrian will. I believe we have been able to prove something in that direction.”
Preparations for Geneva: Singing a Different Tune
On the other hand, it seems that the international train is steaming steadily toward holding Geneva II in a way that suggests Syrian opposition attitudes will do little to change its course. Al-Akhbar has learned that the Russians and Americans have agreed on the text of the invitation to be sent to out to the countries that will participate in the conference.
The invitation will include references to “counter terrorism” that the United States has consented to at Russia’s request. Al-Akhbar’s sources confirmed that the first day of the conference would be attended by delegations from 30 countries. On the second day, the meetings will be attended by the two Syrian delegations exclusively, in addition to Brahimi, with each delegation to consist of 9 to 15 members.
Although the specific form of the opposition’s delegation has yet to be decided, it is understood that armed factions (with the exception of al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) would be represented in it by at least two members. In addition to the two official delegations, technical advisory committees will meet in an adjacent hall, each official delegation choosing its advisers respectively. But some Syrian civilian organizations are advocating participation of independent advisory committees on human rights issues, transitional justice, democracy, and education.
According to reports, the list of invited countries is almost complete, and the only thing it now lacks is an accord over the participation of Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is likely that the two countries will receive an invitation to attend the peace conference after a December 20 preparatory meeting in Geneva, in their capacity as members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Needless to say, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council will attend, led by the United States and Russia. Lebanon and Jordan will also attend as two neighbors of Syria, in addition to the countries that attended the previous meeting in Geneva: Qatar, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Spain, and Indonesia. Brazil, India, and South Africa will attend from the BRICS group, in addition to the European Union and the Arab League.
On Sunday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that the invitations for Geneva II would be sent out on December 20, indicating that the aim of the conference was to to form a transitional government with executive powers as agreed to in Geneva I.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.