Syria’s fractured opposition began meeting Saturday in Istanbul to decide whether to attend a peace conference that world powers want to hold in Geneva.
The talks involving the main umbrella opposition, the National Coalition, took place in a hotel in Switzerland and were due to continue through Sunday evening, the coalition said.
Before they decide whether to attend the peace conference – aimed at launching negotiations between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and its opponents – bitter rival camps in the opposition must first seek a united front, UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned earlier this week.
“There should be two delegations from Syria for Geneva 2 – the government and the opposition,” Brahimi said Tuesday. But, he added: “The opposition is divided and not ready… The opposition has problems.”
The National Coalition – which depends on foreign backing – has long been plagued by regional rivalries and suffers from a lack of credibility in the eyes of both its allies and the various rebel groups fighting on the ground.
Some rebel leaders believe that no negotiations are possible with Assad remaining in power and have for weeks resisted the idea of peace talks.
No date has yet been agreed for the conference, dubbed Geneva II, at which world powers hope to gather delegates from the warring parties, as well as regional Arab states, before the end of the year, according to Brahimi.
“We are leaning towards not taking part in the conference,” said Samir Nashar, a member of the Coalition. “Will that position change? I don’t know, but what I can say is that there’s intense (international) political action (pushing towards participation).
“In politics everything is possible.”
Coalition leader Ahmat Jarba has imposed strict conditions for the opposition to take part, insisting that Assad’s departure and governmental change are on the table – which the Syrian government has rejected.
Jarba is also demanding a ceasefire for the duration of the talks.
The Syrian National Council – a key component of the Coalition – has outright refused to take part in talks, threatening to quit the Coalition if some of its members agree to go.
Damascus too has appeared unwilling.
Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi said this past week the government would refuse to go if it was “to hand over power as desired by (Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud) al-Faisal and certain opponents abroad”.
Meanwhile Russian vice foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov said that some opposition members have accepted an offer of informal talks in Moscow to precede the Geneva conference.
The opposition has “rightful hesitations” about Geneva II including its format, and the future role of Assad, Turkey’s foreign ministry said this week.
At a meeting of foreign ministers in Britain last month to help pave the way for Geneva II, 11 Western and Arab nations from the Friends of Syria group agreed that Assad should have no role in any future government.
Their affirmation nevertheless failed to convince the rebels to commit to Geneva.