Syria’s U.S.-backed opposition leader, Ahmad al-Jabra, promised the U.N. Security Council today that his coalition was prepared to participate in peace talks with the Syrian government in Geneva.
Only there was a catch, or two, or more.
First, President Bashar al-Assad must commit to yield power. Then, the Syrian army’s heavy weapons must fall silent. Oh, and the government negotiators must not have blood on their hands, the rebel leaders insisted. Asked who that might be, a translator for the Syrian opposition delegation quipped to reporters: "there might be a driver."
The opposition had other conditions. But you get the point.
A heavy push by Secretary of State John Kerry — who prodded leaders of the National Syrian Coalition in New York on Thursday to agree to talks with the Syrian government — has failed to compel Syria’s fractured opposition to the negotiating table.
In early May, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed in Moscow to bringing the warring Syrian parties together for a peace conference in Geneva by the end of that same month.
Under the terms of the pact, the U.N. Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi would seek to convince the Syrians to negotiate peace on the basis of a 2012 plan, known as the Geneva Communique, brokered by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. It calls for the formation of a transitional government, comprised of opposition leaders and government representatives, that "would exercise full executive powers." This new government, according to the communique, would help draft a new "democratic and pluralistic" constitution and pave the way for "free and fair multiparty elections."
But there are sharp differences over the meaning of the communique, with Syria insisting that it places no demands on Assad to step down, and the opposition insisting that it does.
So far, Syria, acting under Russian pressure, has agreed to send a delegation to peace talks, but critics have suggested that the slate of government representatives lack decision-making power. The Syrian opposition, which has suffered a series of military setbacks in recent months, has been reluctant to begin talks while their military position is so weak. Plans for the talks have been repeatedly pushed off since May. The latest guesstimate put forward by American and Russian officials is for a meeting in September, though no date has been set.
The United States and other Western powers sought to use the occasion of the Syrian National Coalition’s first visit to the United Nations this week to prod it into attending the Geneva talks. The Syrian opposition delegation assured Western government that they wanted to go, but that they needed certain assurances.
But the Syrian delegation had other priorities on their minds than political talks with Assad’s government: convincing the West to supply them with arms.
In a series of meeting with Kerry and other foreign diplomats over the past two days, the Syrian opposition sought to assure potential weapons-suppliers that their guns and missiles would be kept safe and used to great effect.
"As long as the Assad regime is waging war against the Syrian people, the opposition must have the right to self-defense," Al Jabra said in a statement after an informal meeting with the Security Council this morning. "To deny us the means to defend our people is to ensure that the regime will never step down, and its violent repression will continue."
The Syrian opposition leader said that he had also pressed Kerry on Thursday to speed the delivery of pledged U.S. military support to the rebels. His delegation is seeking anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons that could help turn the tide of the battle, he told reporters.
"We made it very clear to Kerry that we accept" the Geneva peace process, said Burhan Ghalioun, another member of the Syrian coalition. But "we also told Kerry if you want Geneva you should push Russia and Assad to at least stop using ballistic missiles and chemical weapons." The Syrian people, he added, need to "feel a little bit of comfort that there is something happening on the ground."
That might not require a formal end to the war, he added. But it would at least require ending the siege of cities, and allowing humanitarian assistance to needy civilians.
In a closed door meeting with European leaders late Thursday, Ghalioun also sought to assure countries that there should be no fear that arms supplied to the groups’ military allies would fall into the hands of extremists.
"Why would we transfer weapons to extremists who don’t recognize our leadership?" he asked, according to a European diplomat.
Back in the Security Council, the Syrians’ big-power backers sought to portray their allies as the ones eager to embrace peace.
President Al-Jabra "said ‘we want to go to Geneva II,’" claimed France’s U.N. envoy, Gerard Araud. But he sought to cast in the most favorable light a demand by Al-Jabra that any transitional government established as a result of such talks would exercise "control of the security, the army and police."
The French diplomat said the demand was not a "precondition," but "just stating the obvious I remind you that Mr. [Walid] Muallem, the [Syrian] Minister of Foreign Affairs, said publicly that Assad will stay and be a candidate in 2014, which is a precondition."
But Russia’s U.N. envoy Vitaly I. Churkin said there was less to the Syrian opposition pledge to begin peace talks than meets the eye. "One should not be carried away too much because clearly there are still some obstacles to overcome," he said. "My pitch was to go to the talks without preconditions…I regret that there is still an effort, which I saw from leaders of the National Coalition, and also unfortunately [from] some members of the Security Council to complicate matters by interpreting various provisions of the Geneva Communique in advance of the beginning of the negotiations."
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