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At Geneva talks, Syrian opposition sees little to gain and much to lose

Rebels join peace talks at 11th hour but say diplomacy means little if Assad keeps making gains on the ground

Syria’s primary opposition bloc on Friday announced it had reversed its decision to boycott U.N. peace talks in Geneva, a move that temporarily assuaged fears their absence would derail negotiations before they even began.

Still, the opposition’s wavering on whether to even participate exposes a fundamental dilemma that may still doom the latest diplomatic effort to end Syria’s five-year civil war: With government forces on a roll and President Bashar al-Assad more confident than ever that he can remain in power, the rebels feel they have little to gain — and much to lose — by sitting down for another round of discussions.

The 11th-hour reversal came late on Friday, the day talks were scheduled to start. The High Negotiations Committee (HNC), a Saudi-backed union of armed and political opposition factions formed in Riyadh last month, had been demanding for days that the Syrian government demonstrate it was serious about peace by halting blockades of civilian areas and its barrel-bombing raids in advance of talks. Those demands were dismissed out of hand, prompting an HNC boycott until urgent diplomacy from U.N. special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, convinced the committee talks would be worth their while. 

Even so, the fact that the main rebel bloc had to be dragged to the table has only sunk expectations further. “It is a complete failure,” one Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters as the HNC boycott loomed. “With whom [is the Syrian government] going to talk? If you want to engage in negotiations, you have to have a partner. It’s a wonderful occasion for the regime to show they are willing.”

That is precisely the dilemma for Syria's opposition, and the reason it is lukewarm on talking peace even after five years of bloodshed: No matter what happens in Geneva, the government will benefit merely by sitting down. The risks are far greater for the rebels, who know that negotiating with Assad will be perceived on the ground as legitimizing the government and could therefore further erode their already splintered support. Hence the importance in securing some concessions to present their supporters before Geneva kicked off.

HNC member Riyadh Naasan Agha explained the opposition’s central concern: "There is a problem we would like to clarify with de Mistura,” he told Al Jazeera. “Is the main aim of these negotiations for them to be held or to succeed?"

Even de Mistura has acknowledged that this third round of peace talks, the first in two years, had modest expectations and that it could take at least six months. If previous summits in Geneva were talks about talks — preliminary discussions about how the peace process should proceed, which ultimately fizzled over Assad's refusal to consider stepping down — this week's diplomatic wrangling represents a step backward, with the U.N. and regional powers struggling to decide which of the myriad infighting opposition groups to invite to talks and, as of Friday, persuade those invited to show up.

So deep is the mistrust at this stage in the war that de Mistura even arranged it so that each delegation would be promised separate rooms in the hotel, with U.N. diplomats shuttling messages back and forth between the rooms so that no one had to make eye contact with the enemy.

But rebels' contempt for the diplomatic process is not merely about their mistrust of the government. There is a widely held perception among the HNC and its supporters that the geopolitical balance in Syria’s war now tilts decidedly in favor of Assad's forces, largely because Russia's military intervention in Syria is beginning to pay dividends for Assad on the ground. Backed by Russian airstrikes on key rebel targets (as well as occasional strikes on the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL), government forces scored their latest and perhaps biggest victory last week when they captured the southern town of Sheikh Miskeen, cutting off a critical transit route for the rebels between Daraa and Damascus.

“At this point, Assad is not willing to give one inch. Why would he?" one leading opposition figure close to the Geneva talks, who requested anonymity, told Al Jazeera. "He’s winning with the help of Russians. He’s managed to stabilize his forces. And you know, when the people were asking for far less than [his resignation] he has always refused. Why would he give up now?”

On the other side, the Arab Gulf states and Turkey remain steadfast in their commitment to helping the rebels topple Assad. But opposition members express fears that that the U.S. and its Western allies in the opposition camp are losing willpower; Washington's onetime insistence that Assad must go has been derailed by more pressing efforts to combat ISIL.

In a reflection of the growing leverage Russia has gained since intervening in Syria, Moscow convinced the U.N. to invite a separate opposition list that it considers more favorable negotiating partners. (The Syrian government and its main backers, Russia and Iran, consider most of the HNC groups terrorists.) The HNC, however, insist they are the sole legitimate representatives of the Syrian rebels and argue that the presence of individuals they accuse of being pro-government plants, such as Moscow-based former Assad minister Qadri Jamil, discredit the process.

"The Syrian people have made up their mind to support the Riyadh delegation only," said Ali Amin al-Suweid, a political officer with the pro-HNC Syrian Revolutionary General Commission. “"All other lists or names are attempts to put pressures on the Syrians to accept the Russian view and kill the revolution."

Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the pro-HNC Islam Martyrs Brigade in the Damascus suburb of Darayya, echoed that line, saying over Skype, "I don't see any divisions among the true opposition. Russia is only acting on behalf of the regime to foil any political solution in Syria."

Other factors complicating the talks include the exclusion of several of the most powerful rebel factions on the ground, because of the foreign powers that are pulling the strings in the Geneva talks. The most controversial snub was that of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) — a critical partner for the West against ISIL — which was kept out at Turkey's insistence. Al-Qaeda's Syrian branch, Jabhat Al-Nusra, and hard-line factions like Jaysh Al-Islam and Ahrar Al-Sham were also sidelined from the talks. Assad and his allies, who consider all rebel factions terrorists, have pushed to expand the list of banned rebel groups to further erode rebel clout at the talks.

Given the rebels' palpable resentment of how the UN process has taken shape, some analysts said there must be intense pressure behind the scenes compelling the HNC to give Geneva a chance. For the UN, a worsening humanitarian situation in Syria and an unresolved refugee crisis, which is beginning to strain Europe, have lent urgency to this latest effort.

From the other side of the Atlantic, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had urged the HNC to abandon its preconditions and not squander an "historic opportunity" in Geneva. Behind closed doors, some rebel sources told reporters, Washington was threatening to cut off aid if the HNC did not attend — an allegation U.S. officials denied.

The opposition figure close to talks who spoke to Al Jazeera pointed to November's looming U.S. presidential election, which could bring to power a dramatic shift away from President Barack Obama's much-maligned Syria policy — adding another wildcard to an already complex geopolitical equation. The opposition also shares the concerns being raised by some hawkish American commentators that Obama is eager to expedite the diplomatic progress in Geneva and refocus international efforts on stamping out everyone's mutual enemy, ISIL, before he leaves office, even if that means selling the rebels down the river.

For diplomats, “there is a window here,” said the opposition figure close to the talks who spoke to Al Jazeera. “I think the U.N. sees this as a year of opportunity. But after that, who knows?"

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