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October 21, 2013

Kerry Returns to Europe for Syria Talks

by Scott Stearns

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry returned to Europe for another round of talks with countries that are backing opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  They are trying to get political opponents to agree to talks on a transitional government in Geneva. 
 
"There has to be a transition government.  There has to be a new governing entity in Syria in order to permit the possibility of peace," said Kerry.
 
However, Assad's opponents have failed to come together behind Ahmad al-Jarba, who heads the main coalition group.
 
That is blocking any agreement on joining talks, thinks American University professor Akbar Ahmed.
 
"The Syrian opposition has unfortunately failed on two counts.  Number one, to organize all the various different groups that are fighting that are involved under one joint leadership.  Number two, failed to produce that charismatic leader who normally emerges in a situation like this so that people see an alternative," explained Ahmed.
 
Ahmed also pointed out that the growth of al-Qaida-affiliated militia further undermines the opposition, especially as some fighters are breaking away from the main rebel Free Syrian Army.
 
State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that split does not weaken efforts to hold Geneva peace talks.
 
"There are thousands of different groups, and these are - many who were on this list were field commanders, so we’re still looking into what the exact impact will be.  Clearly, the opposition participation in a Geneva conference is vital," said Psaki.
 
With more civilians fleeing fighting, there are also questions about how inclusive a transitional government would come from those Geneva talks.
 
"There is an agreement among the opposition that it would need to be a government of inclusion.  There's an understanding of trying to find ways to protect the minorities, including the Alawites.  In theory there is a very strong agreement.  Again, what will happen in practice?" wondered Manal Omar, an analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
 
President Assad has long claimed that foreign terrorists are targeting his Alawite minority and trying to divide the country.  With Russia and Iran behind him, Ahmed said President Assad has agreed in principle to Geneva talks because he is in a strong position.
 
"He knows the opposition hasn't quite formed into the movement that he thought may topple him in the beginning of this process several years back.  So his strategy is wear it out, just sit it out," said Ahmed.
 
President Assad's staying power unsettles some of his younger opponents, who have watched the return of military power in Egypt said Omar.
 
"They're fighting. They're sacrificing and watching Egypt and watching pretty much some of the same individuals and institutions re-emerge two years later really kind of struck fear in terms of what is happening in Syria after two years, after an incredible death count," explained Omar.
 
The war's impact on civilians is also part of talks in Europe this week. As much of one quarter of Syria's population is internally displaced and more than two million are now refugees.