The Cable

For Geneva talks, rebels leave the U.S. hanging

Will the Syrian opposition come to the big dance? That’s the question facing Washington as pressure mounts to bring both sides of Syria’s two-year civil war to the negotiating table for next month’s U.S.-Russian peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland. Today, Russia came closer to fulfilling its part of the bargain with its announcement that the ...

Will the Syrian opposition come to the big dance? That’s the question facing Washington as pressure mounts to bring both sides of Syria’s two-year civil war to the negotiating table for next month’s U.S.-Russian peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland.

Today, Russia came closer to fulfilling its part of the bargain with its announcement that the Syrian government is willing to attend the conference.

"We note with satisfaction that we have received an agreement in principle from Damascus to attend the international conference, in the interest of Syrians themselves finding a political path to resolve the conflict, which is ruinous for the nation and region," said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich.

Leaders of the fractured Syrian opposition, meanwhile, have given no such pledge to the United States, as they gather in Istanbul to determine a leader following the resignation of cleric Moaz Alkhatib in March.

In recent days, the Syrian National Coalition has said it would not attend the conference in Geneva unless the premise of the talks was the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. In addition, Gen. Salim Idris, the commander of the rebel’s Supreme Military Council, which typically supports the SNC, said he won’t attend unless the U.S. and its allies give him more advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry before the conference, a demand that is unlikely to be met.

On Wednesday, reporters asked a senior State Department official, in a background briefing in Amman, Jordan, about the opposition’s attendance, and it remained uncertain. "We didn’t go into those kinds of details," said the official, according to a transcript from the briefing. "We’re not there yet." 

Each day of silence increases the pressure on Secretary of State John Kerry to bring the opposition to the table for an event U.S. officials previewed as "the most serious effort in the last two years to get the Syrian government to sit down and negotiate with the Syrian opposition." (The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on the preconditions the opposition set ahead of the talks.)

"It’s going to be an initial embarrassment for the United States if the opposition doesn’t show up," Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Cable. "Getting the opposition to show up could prove very divisive." He emphasized the opposition’s demand that the Geneva communiqué expressly prioritize Assad’s removal from power. "The question in their mind is, what are the talks going to be about? The Geneva communiqué basically says that there’s a negotiation toward some sort of transitional government by mutual consent. It doesn’t necessitate that Assad steps aside at the end of the process."

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