Syrian Opposition Threatens to Walk Out Ahead of Talks

A set of preconditions demanded by Assad’s opponents risks unraveling negotiations in Geneva before they begin.

UN Syria envoy Staffan De Mistura gestures at the United Nations Offices on January 25, 2016 in Geneva during a press conference on efforts to restart peace talks. 
The negotiations had been scheduled to open on January 25, but disputes between Damascus and the opposition over the make up of the delegations have raised the prospect of a delay. / AFP / FABRICE COFFRINI        (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
UN Syria envoy Staffan De Mistura gestures at the United Nations Offices on January 25, 2016 in Geneva during a press conference on efforts to restart peace talks. The negotiations had been scheduled to open on January 25, but disputes between Damascus and the opposition over the make up of the delegations have raised the prospect of a delay. / AFP / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

Syria’s main opposition coalition informed U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon late Tuesday that it will not participate in peace talks until the Syrian government and its allies halt attacks against civilians, lift the sieges, and provide humanitarian access to distressed civilians, a U.N.-based diplomat told Foreign Policy.

The letter by lead opposition coordinator Riad Hijab drew a line in the sand for peace efforts as Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy for Syria, made a final push for negotiations to begin in Geneva on Friday. Still, U.N. officials said they remain hopeful Hijab’s Riyadh-based High Negotiations Committee could be persuaded to attend the talks.

Hijab, the HNC’s coordinator, told Ban his group looked “positively” on participating in political talks toward a transition of power and the reform of Syria’s military and national security institutions. He also expressed a willingness to continue working with de Mistura as the envoy tries to midwife new peace talks. The letter, which was written in Arabic, was translated to FP by a diplomat.

But Hijab said the U.N. Security Council must first enact “without exception” key parts of a December 2015 resolution that calls for an immediate cessation of violence, the release of detainees, and a halt to the indiscriminate bombardment of civilians.

The move comes several hours after de Mistura invited the Syrian government, the HNC, and a Russian-favored group of about 10 Syrian opposition figures to participate in the long-awaited talks in Switzerland. The decision to invite the Moscow-promoted group of Syrians was expected to rile Hijab and others who have led the nearly five-year rebellion to push Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.

The invitations, revealed to FP by U.N.-based diplomats, include Haytham Manna — an opposition figure with close ties to Kurdish groups that are rejected by the Turkish government — and Qadri Jamil, leader of the Syrian People’s Will Party, who enjoys strong business and political ties to Moscow. In a concession to Hijab and his U.S.- and Saudi-backed coalition, Manna, Jamil, and several others favored by Russia will not be part of the formal negotiating team in Geneva and will simply serve in an advisory capacity to the United Nations while at the talks.

The HNC says it will reject any Russian efforts to define the Syrian political movement against Assad — especially in ways that could spark internal disagreement or diminish the group’s negotiating position.

“It’s going to be very difficult to get these people on the same negotiating page,” said Andrew Bowen, a senior fellow at the Center for the National Interest. “These people are credible, but they are more open to the Russian position than the opposition figures in the Saudi group.”

The big-tent approach seeks to improve on previously failed negotiations that had excluded key groups with a stake in the nearly five-year Syrian civil war.

Who will be allowed to join the Geneva talks has emerged as a major stumbling block in the Syrian peace process. The main Syrian opposition delegation has threatened to boycott the negotiations if forced to sit at the same table as factions favored by Moscow. In a last-ditch effort to head off a collapse of the talks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Riyadh last weekend to persuade the HNC not to walk away.

On Tuesday, de Mistura issued invitations to the negotiations to the Assad regime and Hijab, a former Syrian prime minister who serves as the coordinator of the HNC. De Mistura asked Hijab to select 15 individuals to serve as the opposition’s formal negotiating team; the HNC brings together many of Syria’s armed rebel groups that influence the fighters in the battle zone.

Last week, Hijab announced the opposition delegation would be headed by Asad al-Zoubi, a Syrian army defector. Hijab also named Mohammed Alloush, a representative of the Saudi-backed Islamist militia Jaish al-Islam, as the group’s chief negotiator.

The additional Syrian opposition figures, including Jamil and Manna, will attend the meeting in a strictly advisory capacity, according to a diplomat from a government that is participating in the peace process. Invitations also were sent to Abbas Habib, a leader of the Council of Syrian Tribes, which has negotiated with the Assad regime in the past; Randa Kassis, head of the Movement of the Pluralistic Society; Maged Habbo, an opposition figure with close ties to both Russians and Kurds; and Jihad Makdissi, a former spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry who is known as a shrewd but measured critic of the regime. Shortly after the invitations were sent, Makdissi indicated on his Facebook page he would not attend — a move he said may smooth over the negotiations.

Saleh Muslim, co-leader of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, did not receive an invitation.

Even before the invitations were sent, de Mistura acknowledged the challenges of corralling the disparate group of political and military rivals, many of whom are unwilling to sit at the same table. The U.N. peace envoy said he would try to get the fragmented opposition factions to work together through several formats, including plenary and bilateral meetings, caucuses, and proximity talks. He also pledged to reach out to Syrian women and civil society representatives.

There will be “a lot of shuttling,” de Mistura told reporters Monday, highlighting the priorities of securing a broad cease-fire, delivering humanitarian aid to civilians, and confronting the Islamic State. “There will be a lot of posturing — we know that — a lot of walk-outs and walk-ins because a bomb has fallen or because someone has done an attack, and you will see that happening.”

“The important thing is that we keep the momentum,” he added.

The invitation to Manna, the co-chair of the political wing of the Kurdish-Arab alliance, is designed to resolve the biggest hurdle to starting the talks: how to deal with the Syrian Kurds.

Turkey had threatened to pull out of the negotiations if Kurds belonging to the PYD and its military affiliate, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, were invited to Geneva. Ankara views these groups as affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a Kurdish resistance group it considers a terrorist organization. Many of the Sunni opposition groups are also at odds with the Kurds and do not view them as legitimate members of the Syrian opposition.

The Russians, however, warned that excluding the PYD would be a “grave mistake.”

“How can you talk about political reforms in Syria if you ignore a leading Kurdish party?” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday.

He noted Kurds make up 15 percent of the Syrian population. In meetings in Istanbul last weekend, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden urged Turkey’s leaders to continue participating in the U.N.-sponsored talks — even if de Mistura invited Syrian Kurdish negotiators.

Given his work in a Kurdish umbrella organization that works with the PYD, Manna is viewed as close — but still distant enough to be somewhat credible — to Kurdish groups at the center of the dispute.

Even as world powers praised the start of talks as a critical step toward peace in Syria, the United States and its Western allies lamented that the discussions will open against a backdrop of intense violence.

“We can have no credible political process without an immediate improvement on the ground for Syrians,” François DeLattre, France’s U.N. ambassador, told the Security Council during a debate on the Middle East Tuesday.

“Syrians need to see improvements to the situation on the ground, and they need to see benefits in the negotiations in Geneva,” added Matthew Rycroft, Britain’s U.N. envoy. “How can opposition groups explain their participation in negotiations to their supporters when they continue to suffer daily bombing raids?”

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, meanwhile, lambasted Assad and Russia for pursuing military attacks against Syrian opposition groups that will be sitting at the peace table. Russian airstrikes, she noted, “continue to target opposition groups and kill hundreds of civilians.” The Syrian government, she added, is pursuing “a deliberate strategy aimed at killing and displacing civilians.” But she nevertheless applauded the convening of talks as “a critical step in ending the conflict in Syria.”

Russia’s U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, also lauded the decision to pursue talks, saying it offered a “window of opportunity” for ending the violence. Still, he accused the United States and its Western allies of “muddying the waters” about the situation in Syria — and Russia’s role in it. Russia, he said, has been combating the Islamic State and other terrorist groups and supporting efforts to deliver humanitarian assistance to civilians in Deir Ezzor.

Earlier this month, de Mistura told the Security Council in a closed-door meeting that the goal of the talks is “to establish credible, inclusive, and nonsectarian governance, and a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution within a target of six months, and free and fair elections, pursuant to the new constitution, to be held within 18 months and administered under U.N. supervision,” according to a copy of his speaking notes.

De Mistura plans to open discussions in Geneva with the key players on areas of common ground — like lifting the sieges on civilian populations, building confidence among the factions, and, potentially, setting the stage for a wider cease-fire agreement.

He raised concerns the situation is so “fragmented, volatile, and militarized” that it would be “extremely challenging to deploy any international monitors” to oversee any cease-fire that might emerge from the peace process.

Initially, the world may have to rely on Syrians — including civilians and combatants alike — to monitor any cease-fire agreement. Their efforts could be bolstered with training and equipment, and the United Nations could authorize a “limited expansion” of its political presence in Syria to work with the public. But de Mistura said that may ultimately require “greater direct international involvement in cease-fire monitoring, verification, and reporting…. This means we must collectively understand and accept the risks involved.”

“We need to capitalize on any opportunity to reduce the horrific levels of violence and the suffering of civilians,” he said. “To move fast in the event of a cessation of hostilities or, better still, a cease-fire, we will also need to draw upon the expertise, skills, and contributions of the international community.”

Photo credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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