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US and Europe pressure SNC to attend Syria peace talks

US and Europe apply intense pressure on the main Syrian opposition group to attend a long-delayed peace conference aimed at ending Syria's civil war.

Free Syrian Army fighters aim a weapon from inside a room in Bab Antakya district in Old Aleppo. Molhem Barakat / Reuters
Free Syrian Army fighters aim a weapon from inside a room in Bab Antakya district in Old Aleppo. Molhem Barakat / Reuters

BEIRUT // The US and Europe are putting intense pressure on the main Syrian opposition group to attend a long-delayed peace conference aimed at ending Syria’s civil war, even though agreeing to join the talks could irreparably split the fragmented opposition in exile.

The Syrian National Coalition appears to be getting support from its patrons in the Arabian Gulf for its demands of key guarantees before it consents to take part in peace talks. Chief among those backers is regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia, which is growing more frustrated with its American ally.

A meeting on Tuesday between the Syrian opposition and 11 of its foreign supporters, including the US, provided a venue for Washington to press its case. But the coalition, which has been deeply frustrated by what it sees as the West’s paltry aid for the rebellion, did not bend. Instead, it presented a list of demands that made the already-slim chances of the peace talks going ahead look bleak at best.

The US and Russia, which support opposing sides in the conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people, have been trying for months to bring the Syrian government and its opponents to the table for negotiations in Geneva aimed at ending the war. But with the fighting deadlocked, neither the regime of President Bashar Al Assad nor the rebels showed any interest in compromise, forcing the meeting to be repeatedly postponed.

The idea regained traction after the US-Russian agreement last month for Syria to give up its chemical weapons following a deadly sarin attack on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21. With the West threatening military strikes, Syria quickly agreed to the deal.

The UN Security Council resolution that enshrined that agreement also endorsed a road map for a political transition and called for an international peace conference in Geneva to be convened as soon as possible.

While the US and Europe continue to press for peace talks, nothing has shifted fundamentally in the conflict that would prompt either the government or the opposition to negotiate. The war remains a bloody grind as rebels and government troops battle block by block and field by field, see-sawing back and forth.

On Monday Mr AL Assad himself cast doubt on the prospects for Geneva, saying the factors that would help the conference succeed are not yet in place. Speaking to Lebanon’s Al Mayadeen TV, he said it is not clear who would represent the opposition, or what credibility opposition representatives would have inside Syria.

The government has kept its options open on Geneva.

Mr Al Assad has stuck to one point throughout: a refusal to talk with “terrorists”, the term the government uses for those trying to topple him.

For the coalition, which is riven by competing factions, the stakes for agreeing to go to Geneva are much higher. According to veteran opposition figure Kamal Labwani, it is nothing short of an existential crisis.

Fighters in Syria — many of whom reject negotiations with the regime — have accused the opposition leaders in exile of being out of touch. Last month, nearly a dozen prominent rebel factions publicly broke with the coalition, laying bare the group’s credibility problem inside Syria. More rebel brigades have since followed suit.

One senior coalition member, Ahmad Ramadan, said the US is pushing the coalition to drop its preconditions and go to Geneva to present its “demands, conditions and visions there”, and that Washington has promised its support.

“We consider that this suggestion does not carry any guarantees with enough credibility,” he said, adding that US assurances ring hollow after the Obama administration failed to carry out a military attack against the Assad regime following the August chemical attack.

* Associated Press