International

Syria National Coordination Body pulls out of Geneva talks

Opposition group backtracks as Syrian government confirms attendance and rebel forces remain fractured

Syrian soldiers loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in the town of Naqaren on Tuesday, after claiming to have regained control of the town from rebel forces.
George Ourfalian/Reuters

On the same day Syria's main domestic opposition group said it would not attend peace talks being forged by the international community to reach a diplomatic solution to Syria’s civil war, the Syrian government confirmed it would participate. Meanwhile, rebels on the front lines continue to boycott any negotiations that might keep President Bashar al-Assad in power.

The National Coordination Body, a Syrian opposition group that some rebels see as a front for Assad, has decided not to take part in the peace talks, which will begin on Jan. 22 in Geneva, international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said on Thursday.

The National Coordination Body is also known as the National Coordination Committee.

Brahimi said in a statement that he respected the organization's decision not to join the opposition delegation to the talks but “deeply regretted” that it would not be included. Brahimi has yet to announce the makeup of the two delegations to the talks, which are a successor to a first installment in June 2012 that proved largely ineffective.

The Syrian government, on the other hand, has agreed to attend the upcoming Geneva II peace talks, according to a leaked letter from Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem obtained by Al Jazeera.

The letter from Muallem to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in response to his invitation appears to set conditions for the peace talks.

"It should be noted that we do not agree with certain points mentioned in the letter of invitation, simply for the reason that they are in conflict with the legal and political position of the State of Syria," Muallem wrote.

He went on to say, “It remains a priority for the Syrian people to continue to fight terrorism … We demand the countries supporting terrorism cease and refrain from funding, training, arming or harboring terrorist groups in harmony with international law and U.N. resolutions."

Syria often refers to the rebels as "terrorists." While some rebel groups, including the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, have been linked to Al-Qaeda, most are not.

Several Gulf states financially back the rebels, while states including Russia and Iran have supported the Syrian regime.

In a press conference on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry encouraged both sides to attend the upcoming conference. 

Rebel boycott

While the Syrian government plans to attend the Geneva II conference, many rebel forces on the front lines of the war remain fervently opposed and say they will boycott the long-anticipated peace talks.

“Conditions are not suitable for running the Geneva II talks at the given date and we, as a military and revolutionary force, will not participate in the conference,” Gen. Salim Idriss, head of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview in November.

"We won’t go if Geneva doesn't say clearly Assad must go,” he said, and added that the rebels would not halt fighting during the conference.

The Western-backed FSA is an umbrella group encompassing many rebel units, but opposition sources and analysts say its influence has already been reduced by powerful Al-Qaeda-aligned groups and their allies that are making their own coalitions drawing in the strongest rebel forces on the ground.

The opposition has been badly divided over the Geneva peace talks, with the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the opposition’s umbrella political leadership — which is also supported by the West — agreeing to talks despite strong resistance from fighters and activists on the ground.

Rebels are wary that the talks will not represent their interests and will allow Assad to remain president.

Previous attempts to bring the two sides together failed, mainly because of disputes over who should represent the Syrian opposition and government and whether Iran, Saudi Arabia and other regional powers should be invited to the table.

Syria's uprising began as peaceful anti-government protests in March 2011, but transformed into a violent conflict as Assad's forces cracked down on demonstrations.

More than 100,000 people have been killed and millions more made refugees in what has now become a full-fledged civil war that regularly spills across Syria’s borders and has revived regional branches of Al-Qaeda.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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