— Disparate Syrian opposition groups, including several Islamist rebel representatives, met for the first time in the Spanish city of Cordoba to seek common ground ahead of peace talks with President Bashar al-Assad's government later this month.
After nearly three years of conflict the opposition has fractured into competing groups with different regional backers and the West is pushing to gather a unified body of opposition members to attend negotiations on Jan. 22, dubbed “Geneva 2.”
Prospects for progress at the talks in Switzerland appear dim. Assad, buttressed by recent military gains and a wave of rebel infighting, has flatly ruled out demands from the weakened opposition that he stand aside.
The two-day meeting in Spain brings together members of the Western-backed National Coalition but also delegates from opposition groups inside Syria that are tolerated by Assad as they do not call for his removal - and are therefore distrusted by many exiled opposition members.
“Most colors from Syria are represented here. There is even one person from Syrian security who supports Assad,” said veteran dissident Kamal Labwani.
At least three members of the Islamic Front had also come, he said. The front is made up of several Islamist brigades which represent a large portion of fighters on the ground and reject the authority of the National Coalition.
“We want them to be here. We will listen to them,” Labwani said. Differences between the delegates were too deep to bridge at the meeting, he added, but it would aim to create a dialog among them.
Diplomats say the gathering is recognition that the divided National Coalition - which has yet to formally accept an invitation to attend Geneva 2 - is losing influence on the ground and a more comprehensive grouping is needed ahead of the talks.
Rebels from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army were also at the meeting in Cordoba, a venue chosen by the Spanish government because of its historical importance as the capital of the Islamic caliphate during the Middle Ages.
Organizers said they did not have a complete list of attendees and some unexpected delegates had turned up.
A representative from Liwa al-Islam, a brigade that works with the Islamic Front, told Reuters he was attending the meeting but gave no further details of his role.
Opposition figure Fawaz Tello, one of the meeting's organizers, said Cordoba was prepared three months ago to encompass the “whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition. To sit together and define a mutual vision”.
“This is not for the election of another leadership or to decide the delegates for Geneva,” he said.
Assad's forces have recently been gaining ground against rebel fighters backed by the opposition and he faces little pressure to make concessions. At the same time, radical Islamists distrusted by the West have taken a bigger role in the campaign to oust Assad.
“We are gathered here today despite our different views to try and reach a consensus that can save our people,” Sheik Mohammed al-Yacoubi, an opposition Muslim cleric, said at the start of the meeting, which will last until Friday evening.
Syria was plunged into civil war after an uprising against four decades of Assad family rule erupted in March 2011 and descended into an armed insurgency after the army cracked down on protests.
Syrian rebel fighters hold their weapons as they walk along a street in Aleppo's Salaheddine neighborhood, Jan. 10, 2014.
A Free Syrian Army fighter looks on as he holds the Syrian opposition flag during a protest against Syria's president and fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in Aleppo's Salaheddine neighborhood, Jan. 10, 2014.
A boy holds bread as he walks in front of the Syrian opposition flag during a protest against Syria's president and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in Aleppo's Salaheddine neighborhood, Jan. 10, 2014.
Bystanders look on as crews begin clearing the wreckage of a car bomb that exploded near a school in Al-Kafat, Syria, Jan. 9, 2014.
The remains of a car destroyed by a suicide bomb near the front of a damaged building in Al-Kafat, Jan. 9, 2014.
People survey the damage to a building destroyed by a suicide car bomb in Al-Kafat, Syria, Jan. 9, 2014.
Damaged buildings line a deserted street in the besieged area of Homs, Jan. 9, 2014.
Free Syrian Army fighters are deployed in Kadi Askar in Aleppo after they claimed that they seized it from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, Jan. 7, 2014.
Free Syrian Army fighters prepare to launch a mortar towards fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant from a street in the Kadi Askar neighborhood of Aleppo, Jan. 7, 2014.
Men help a wounded boy who survived what activists say was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Duma neighborhood of Damascus, Jan. 7, 2014.