The Cable

Syrian Opposition Vows to Back Out of Peace Talks — For Now

What if you held a round of peace talks and one side doesn’t come?

Former Syrian prime minister Riyad Hijab meets with Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi (unseen) in the League's headquarters in Cairo on February 11, 2013. AFP PHOTO / KHALED DESOUKI        (Photo credit should read KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Former Syrian prime minister Riyad Hijab meets with Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi (unseen) in the League's headquarters in Cairo on February 11, 2013. AFP PHOTO / KHALED DESOUKI (Photo credit should read KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

What if you held a round of peace talks and one side doesn’t come?

That’s the very real conundrum facing the United Nations now that leaders of the fractious Syrian opposition say they will skip the first day of the long-awaited U.N. negotiations slated to begin Friday in Geneva. The U.N. isn’t budging, with a spokeswoman saying the talks will proceed as scheduled. Taken together, Thursday’s last-minute diplomatic wrangling leaves a cloud of uncertainty over negotiations aimed at ending Syria’s brutal five-year civil war.

As late as Thursday evening, Western diplomats continued to exert pressure on leaders of the Syrian opposition in order to change their minds about attending. The decision to skip the first day of talks was announced by the High Negotiations Committee, or HNC, a powerful Saudi Arabian-backed opposition group. A Syrian opposition representative close to the HNC tells Foreign Policy the delegation is still considering sending spokespeople to counter the statements from Damascus but no top-level figures will participate. Meanwhile, a U.N. official countered that some opposition representatives would be flown out in a Saudi jet and and the full delegation could attend later.

“Let’s let this play out,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters Thursday. “It’s still not Friday morning in Geneva, so let’s give this a little bit more time.”

HNC officials had long threatened to stay out of the negotiations unless the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad halt its attacks against civilians, lift the sieges of rebel-held towns and provide humanitarian access to distressed civilians.

With Damascus showing no signs of meeting any of those demands, George Sabra, a senior member of the HNC, told the Arabic news channel Arabiya al-Hadath Thursday that “for certain we will not head to Geneva” or send a delegation to the talks. The Assad government has agreed to send a delegation to the talks.

The announcement is a major setback for U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura, Western powers like the United States, and regional Arab governments like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, all of whom pressed the opposition to attend the talks. Just last weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Riyadh to try to persuade the HNC not to walk away. For his part, de Mistura released a video message on Thursday calling the talks the last chance for peace. “Now we need to hear your voice,” de Mistura said, referring to the Syrian people. He called the summit an “opprotunity not to be missed.”

The talks were originally scheduled for Monday, but disagreements about who would represent the opposition forced de Mistura to postpone to Friday. The HNC insisted on being the only opposition delegation, but Russia demanded that other anti-Assad figures be included, such as Qadri Jamil, leader of the leftist People’s Will Party, and Haytham Manna, a dissident with close ties to Syrian Kurdish groups.

The HNC’s refusal to join the talks does not come without risks. The move could create deeper tensions with the group’s Gulf and international backers at a time when the opposition can little afford to lose negotiating leverage. On the ground, forces loyal to Assad have taken advantage of Russia’s air support and recaptured a handful of rebel-controlled downs in recent days. Without having a seat at the table, the opposition also won’t be in a position to strike humanitarian deals for the growing numbers of Syrians caught in the crossfire.

“Syrians are desperate for aid, and this is a hard fact the regime and its supporters are exploiting,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In a statement, other HNC representatives said they were still willing to join the talks if their preconditions were addressed. “We are serious about taking part and to start the negotiations, but what is hindering the start of negotiations is the one who is bombing civilians and starving them,” the group said.

Assad is likely to reject those demands, leaving the fate of the talks in limbo.

“The diverse and divisive opposition has been a formidable challenge to manage,” Andrew Bowen, a Middle East expert at the Center for the National Interest, told FP. “De Mistura can’t assume anymore that their backers can push them to the table without their concerns substantively addressed.”

Getty Images

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola