Hopes fade for Syria peace talks next month

Officials express pessimism about scheduled talks, which could be delayed once again

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil el-Araby, right, listens as U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi speaks during a news conference at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on Oct. 20.
Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters Picture Stream / MED

Adding to the long list of complications that could undermine a long-awaited peace conference for Syria, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on Wednesday that peace talks could only succeed if foreign powers — namely the U.S. and Saudi Arabia — end their material support of Syria's rebels who are fighting to overthrow him.

Syrian state television quoted Assad as saying "the success of any political solution is tied to stopping support for terrorist groups and pressuring their patron states," during the meeting in Damascus. Assad has repeatedly condemned foreign aid, especially from the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for armed rebel factions, who he calls "terrorists."

As war continues to batter Syria's weary citizens, tentative optimism about a renewed push for peace in Syria has fallen by the wayside since the Arab League announced last week that the Geneva 2 peace conference had been slated for Nov. 23-24.

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The proposed conference, the successor to the largely ineffective Geneva conference that took place in June 2012, would aim to end the two-and-a-half year conflict that has killed more than 115,000 and displaced 2 million.

Unnamed Arab and Western officials told Reuters on Wednesday that the November target date was beginning to look unrealistic as international powers wrangling behind closed doors butt heads and the Syrian National Coalition, the most widely recognized opposition group, refuses to sign on.

Barring major progress from next week's meeting in Geneva between the U.S., Russia and the U.N., "all indications show that the Nov. 23 goal will be difficult to meet," said one of the officials involved in preparing for the talks.

The U.S., Saudi Arabia and Qatar, among others, have been significant donors of military and humanitarian aid to disparate rebel groups throughout the war's duration.

But Assad's comments about foreign aid for the rebels, which he alleges is funding an Al-Qaeda-led uprising, are not the first indication that peace talks might get derailed.

Foreign powers, namely the U.S. and Russia, have been struggling to reconcile mutually incompatible demands from the regime and opposition about Assad's role in the process and about who should represent the vast and disjointed opposition.

The U.S. and its allies are calling for Assad to step down and for the Syrian National Coalition, which the U.S. has long supported, to represent the opposition in Geneva.

Assad, for his part, has rejected calls to resign or initiate a transition, and said last week that he saw no reason why he could not run for another term as president.

At a meeting last week in London, the Friends of Syria — a coalition of Western and Gulf countries that support the opposition — announced that Geneva negotiations should be held between a "single delegation of the Syrian regime and a single delegation of the opposition, of which the Syrian National Coalition should be the heart and lead, as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people."

Following the summit, which included SNC President Ahmed Jarba and other members of his organization, Secretary of State John Kerry and his British counterpart, William Hague, said the group was committed to removing Assad from power.

"We believe that he has lost all legitimacy, all capacity to govern the country, and therefore it's hard to imagine any resolution in any other way," Kerry said.

A communique at the end of the meeting also said Geneva would aim to establish a transitional government by which time "Assad and his close associates with blood on their hands will have no role in Syria."

Those words were welcomed by the Syrian National Coalition, the Istanbul-based political partner of the Free Syrian Army, which has repeatedly ruled out participating in a peace conference that does not include Assad's resignation as a precondition.

"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," George Netto, an SNC member based in Washington, told Al Jazeera when rumors first emerged about the November conference.

But the SNC is just one of the several political bodies who speak on behalf of the opposition, and Russia believes that a new coalition must be formed to represent the rebels at Geneva 2. Specifically, Moscow is pushing for the inclusion of what Assad calls the "patriotic opposition" — Damascus-based political dissidents who are tolerated by the regime and oppose the armed uprising.

A 'charade'

With both sides — and their international backers — unwilling to budge on several key issues, the prospects for effective peace talks "are not good," said Joshua Landis, a foremost Syria expert and author of the blog Syria Comment.

"Everybody's hiding behind what they would like to see happen, which is that Assad must go, but they can't tell you how that's going to happen," said Landis about the countries pushing for a transition government. He called the conference a "charade."

Syrians are expressing similar concerns that rhetoric from the political powers at play in Syria belies the lack of progress toward peace.

"They're going to tell the world what they want to hear, but still do what they want inside Syria," said Abdulrahman al-Masri, a Damascus native who works as a reporter in Amman for news outlet Syria Direct.

The U.N. this week has deployed Brahimi to Damascus to shore up support for the faltering conference, which officials now expect to be pushed back at least a month.

But Brahimi has walked a fraying tightrope between Assad and the opposition.

This week, the Syrian National Coalition called for Brahimi's dismissal after he commented that Iran, which backs Damascus, should participate in the proposed peace talks on Syria. Iran's intention to participate has emerged as yet another point of contention on the road to Geneva, with the SNC stating that they do not approve of Iran's involvement.

"If Brahimi insists on his provocative remarks, we will say to him: This is not Geneva as we know it," said Anas al-Abda, a member of the SNC's political committee, in comments posted to the coalition's website.

While such rhetoric is discouraging to the conference's organizers, Landis believes that the U.S. and its allies, in backing Geneva 2, actually have more modest aims than an immediate resolution to the conflict.

"The U.S. is really trying to send the international community a message and initiate some kind of momentum for the idea that there has to be a political solution to the conflict," Landis said.

In that regard, Geneva could at least "get the ball rolling," he said.

Syrians, meanwhile, are not hanging their hopes on the proposed talks.

Al-Masri says the Syrians he interviews on a daily basis are by and large disengaged from the peace process, which they view as detached from the reality on the ground.

"The people are tired of the Geneva solution," he says, noting that the opposition's political representatives operate outside of Syria and have only limited authority within the country.

"The guys fighting on the ground are the ones suffering, but the people living in hotels are the ones doing the talks."

With wire services

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