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Syrian Opposition Ponders Peace Meeting

  • Dorian Jones

FILE - Khaled Saleh, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, March 26, 2013.

FILE - Khaled Saleh, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, March 26, 2013.

Syria's opposition coalition is to convene in Istanbul Thursday to decide whether to participate in talks next month on resolving the Syrian conflict that are being organized by Washington and Moscow. But the opposition has reservations about the role of the Syrian government in the planned talks.

The Syrian National Coalition is due to meet over three days in Istanbul. The deliberations will include whether to attend a meeting - brokered by Moscow and Washington - to end the Syrian bloodshed. The U.S. and Russia are trying to bring the Syrian government and opposition together in early June for talks on a political solution.

But Khaled Saleh, spokesman for the coalition, says there are serious reservations about joining the meeting.

"The main concern that we have [is that] at the same time we are talking about peace process and political solution through this conference, the situation on the ground is getting worse by the day. We see more massacres in Banias. So we are very worried that Assad is not showing any good will toward a political solution," Saleh said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has warned of serious consequences if Damascus fails to join next month’s meeting. He has also appealed to the Syrian opposition to attend.

Washington appears to be looking to the Turkish government to use its influence on the Syrian opposition, as U.S. President Barack Obama indicated after his meeting in Washington with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this month.

"The prime minister has been in the forefront of the international effort to push to a democratic Syria without Bashar Assad. And Turkey is going to play an important role as we bring representatives of the regime and opposition together in the coming weeks," Obama said.

The Turkish prime minister is one of the strongest supporters of the Syrian opposition, allowing both the political and military wings to use Turkish territory. But until recently, Ankara has voiced strong reservations about dealing with Damascus. Semih Idiz, diplomatic columnist for the Turkish newspaper Taraf, says Ankara has now changed its stance.

"Previously Turkey's position was indexed on the idea that Assad [be removed] by military force, by means of arming the opposition and all that. But Turkey has not really mustered sufficient international support for that idea. So there is really one option left, which is a political settlement option now. Turkey is not in a position to go against that international trend at the momen," Idiz said.

Idiz says another factor in Ankara’s change of stance was the car bomb attack earlier this month in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, which killed 52 people. While there is still debate over who was responsible for the attack, there is a consensus in Turkey it was connected to the Syrian conflict - adding to fears that the violence could spill into Turkey.

Columnist Idiz thinks that Prime Minister Erdogan's support for the planned peace conference will help to overcome reservations among the Syrian opposition.

"Turkey can convince the opposition that this is only way to go. Not everybody in the opposition is pleased about this. But Turkey can really be a facilitator by encouraging people to go along with this, rather than perhaps standing on the side, as it might have been previously," Idiz said.

The Syrian National Coalition is expected to have a difficult time deciding whether or not to attend the planned peace talks next month. But political observers say that with key allies like Turkey now adding their voice to those calling for participation, the opposition will find those calls hard to resist.