ISTANBUL— A new effort by Syria’s western-backed opposition aimed at improving its authority inside Syria and achieving increased diplomatic support could be in trouble over the issue of participation in proposed U.S. and Russian-brokered peace talks known as “Geneva II.”
The newly formed Syrian National Coalition which replaced the largely ineffective Syrian National Council over the weekend has moved quickly to name a partial cabinet to administer rebel-held territories mainly in the north and east of the war-torn country. But the coalition is facing renewed hostility from Jihadist rebel fighters after indicating a willingness to participate in US and Russian-brokered peace talks in Geneva.
It took months of negotiations to pull the coalition together. Coalition supporters say it will work more closely with revolutionary councils inside Syria and that it represents 90 percent of opposition groups.
In a statement yesterday (Nov. 11) the SNC said it would participate in the Geneva peace talks, if humanitarian aid is allowed to reach besieged areas and the government releases thousands of political detainees. It also insists that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad be excluded from any transitional government that might be agreed when, or if, Geneva talks take place – a precondition rejected by Damascus. The statement marks the first time the SNC’s leadership has said it is ready to negotiate.
Jihadists have long rejected any talks regardless of stipulations. Last September more than a dozen mainly Islamist brigades - including some of the most powerful rebel militias – broke with the coalition and its Free Syrian Army to form their own Islamic bloc, Jaysh Al-Islam (Army of Islam). The umbrella group has attracted more brigades in recent weeks and analysts say it now numbers 64 militias.
The Army of Islam’s political coordinator, Mohammed Alloush, the brother of one of the umbrella group’s top leaders, was dismissive yesterday of the SNC, warning, “Any political solution should be imposed from the field, not from foreign parties.” Islamist rebels deride the SNC as a puppet of Western and Gulf powers and say it is not representative of rebel fighters.
Alloush complained the talks about talks aren’t focused on what the armed opposition groups want, including “toppling of the regime and putting its members on trial.” The leaders of the affiliated brigades of the Army of Islam warned earlier this month they would consider any participation in Geneva talks an act of betrayal and would seek to bring any SNC members involved before Sharia courts in rebel-held territory.
Fehim Tastekin, a Turkish columnist for the newspaper Radikal, says the SNC has been placed in a no-win situation, having to choose between either refusing to go to Geneva and face the loss of the support of the international community, “or agree to attend and lose Syria – that is, the armed opposition.”
The proposed peace talks to end the brutal 32-month conflict dubbed as “Geneva II” were scheduled for this month but the SNC’s failure to develop a clear stance, as well as disputes between Washington and Moscow over opposition representation have led to a delay.
Some hope remains
SNC sources say they still believe rebel fighters can be persuaded that political talks are the best way forward and in the coming weeks will seek to explain their position to brigade leaders using community activists to assist. One of their likely main arguments will be that Assad’s forces with the assistance of Shia fighters from Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah movement and from Iraq are making military advances and that with field conditions going against them it is better the talk now than later when the rebellion may be weaker.
In early November, as well as making inroads into rebel-held suburbs south of Damascus, Assad’s forces recaptured, according to Syria’s armed forces and opposition activists, a strategic town to the southeast of Aleppo, once the commercial hub of the country. The retaking of Safira marked a rare success for Assad’s forces in the mostly rebel-held north.
SNC spokesman Khaled Hodja argues that “the military wing can be persuaded”, if it is clear Assad won’t be part of any transition.
But rebel fighters argue they still have the potential to score victory on the battlefield, pointing to their recent success in retaking on November 9 a strategic base in the northern Aleppo province that Assad forces had managed to overrun just a day earlier.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group that relies on a network of opposition activists for its information, said the counter-attack launched by fighters, including some from two al-Qaeda affiliates, on the Syrian army’s 80th brigade base left at least 53 people dead – 33 rebels and 20 government soldiers.
The decision by the SNC to indicate a willingness to attend Geneva talks had majority support from the 114-members but was not unanimous. And an influential member of the SNC, Kamal Lebvani cautioned against optimism over the chances of reaching a negotiated settlement saying “It can’t be implemented because the fighters are the ones who decide things not us.”