Syrian deputy PM says peace talks set for November

Long-awaited Geneva II conference said to be imminent, but opposition still not on board

Secretary of State John Kerry, third from right, meets at the U.N. in July with leaders of the Syrian National Coalition, the Western-backed opposition group, to promote an international conference and a political solution to the civil war.
Richard Drew/Associated Press

Echoing calls from U.S. and Russian leaders for peace talks to end the Syrian conflict as early as next month, a Syrian deputy prime minister said on Thursday that the highly anticipated Geneva II conference would in fact take place at the end of November.

Qadri Jamil, a political dissident who now serves in the Syrian government, said from Moscow that the long-delayed international conference aimed at bringing the Syrian government and opposition together to negotiate an end to the civil war would take place Nov. 23-24.

"Geneva is a way out for everyone: the Americans, Russia, the Syrian regime and the opposition," Jamil told Reuters. “Whoever realizes this first will benefit. Whoever does not realize it will find himself overboard, outside the political process."

Within hours of that statement, Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told reporters, "We shouldn't get ahead of ourselves."

"It is not a matter for Syrian officials but the responsibility of U.N. Secretary General to announce and set dates agreed with all sides," he added, but he neither confirmed nor denied that those dates had been set.

When contacted by Al Jazeera, Jamil’s office in Damascus said the deputy prime minister was speaking in his capacity as a member of an opposition delegation and not on behalf of the Syrian government.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have both called for urgent peace talks to be scheduled in line with a U.N. Security Council resolution directed at ridding the Syrian regime of its chemical weapons stockpile, but there is no indication that any high-profile rebel groups have signed on to the idea of negotiating with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“A political settlement with international backing is the best hope for a stable peace in Syria right now,” said Chris Chivvis, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corp., who called Jamil’s statements a “positive sign” for ending the war that has killed 115,000 people in two and a half years.

“But the main question remains whether the increasingly fragmented rebels can be convinced to accept the deal.”

That concern was underlined Thursday by opposition activists, who roundly deny that a peace conference involving prominent opposition leaders is imminent.

They call Jamil a "fake" opposition member and say he has long been co-opted by the regime and disowned by the revolution.

Ali Amin Suwaid, a political officer with the Syrian Revolution General Commission, which works for a “moderate, democratic” Syria, considers Jamil part of the thinly veiled “soft regime,” with no authority to speak for the wider opposition movement.

“No one from the opposition on the ground or outside of Syria who are really not part of the ‘pro-regime opposition’ will accept to participate in the peace conference unless removing Assad is part of the conference,” Suwaid told Al Jazeera. “They will lose their legitimacy the moment they agree to talk to Assad.”

Like many among the opposition, he believes the regime has embraced the talks as a means of postponing decisive action on Syria by the West.

The Western-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the mainstream revolution’s political leadership-in-exile, voted on Sunday not to attend Geneva II, the second edition of a June 2012 conference that proved largely inconsequential in establishing a transition government. Kerry has said Geneva II would aim to pick up where its predecessor left off.

“The SNC considers going to Geneva against the fundamental principles established by the SNC,” read a statement from the coalition, which has said it will participate in talks only if Assad’s departure following a transition period is guaranteed.

“Things may change, of course — and we’re not saying he needs to resign before we go — but we’re not going to Geneva to shoot the breeze at one more meeting and at the same time lose our credibility,” said George Netto, an SNC member who serves as a liaison between the coalition and the State Department in Washington.

Netto, who said he initially encouraged the SNC to embrace the Geneva II conference, now worries that the coalition is suffering from a credibility crisis and would not be well served by attending.

“Going without a clear agenda to Geneva II, without getting the consensus and the mandate from the actual fighters and activists on the ground, will be like shooting themselves in the foot," he said about the SNC. "They’ll lose whatever credibility they have on the Syrian street.”

Nevertheless, the SNC said it remains committed to a transition government, for which Kerry has reiterated U.S. support in recent statements.

“We believe that President Assad has lost the legitimacy necessary to be a cohesive force that could bring people together,” the secretary of state told Reuters on Monday.

Jamil, a leader of the leftist People’s Will Party, which participated in peaceful anti-regime protests in 2011, has repeatedly condemned international intervention in Syria and even praised Russia for vetoing proposed U.N. sanctions against the regime.

In June 2012, following elections that Jamil himself called “forged and manipulated,” he was appointed deputy prime minister for economic affairs. His acceptance of the position, and his appointment to the government’s committee for reforming Syria’s constitution, drew accusations that he had been co-opted into the regime’s political apparatus.

In his Thursday comments, Jamil did not specify which parties from the opposition had signed on to the November conference — or if any even had.

Chemical cleanup

The push for an immediate peace conference comes amid apparent progress on the diplomatic front, namely the Syrian government’s cooperation with a U.N. Security Council resolution to rid Syria of its chemical stockpiles, an operation that is currently underway.

On Thursday, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), winner of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, said its inspectors had not found any weaponized chemical munitions since it began work in the country on Oct. 1.

The OPCW, which is working alongside the U.N. to verify Syria's initial declaration of its weapons program and render production and chemical-mixing facilities inoperable by Nov. 1, confirmed that the Syrian government’s claims up to now have been consistent with its findings.

The OPCW’s work on the ground has thus far entailed smashing control panels on machines and destroying empty munitions. The team has visited 11 of more than 20 sites since it arrived in Syria and has carried out destruction work at six.

"Cheap, quick and low tech. Nothing fancy," OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said of the work.

In the next phase, the work gets more complex and dangerous when actual chemical weapons have to be destroyed — in the midst of a full-blown civil war. Negotiations are still underway as to how and where that will happen.

Kerry said on Oct. 7 that Assad deserved credit for cooperating with chemical inspectors and that the White House was “very pleased” with early progress in Syria.

The opposition considers such statements inappropriate. Netto called the international community's response to chemical warfare in Syria, which the rebels have alleged is perpetrated by the regime, "disappointing."

“You can be a killer basically, and the moment you hand over your gun, you’re fine,” he said.

With wire services

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