Leaders of the Syrian opposition announced on Thursday that they will not participate in US and Russian sponsored peace talks that its planners were hoping would take place in Geneva, Switzerland in June.
The news comes on the same day that the Syrian government said it had received S-300 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia meant to deter a potential foreign intervention.
These developments indicate little willingness from either side to seek out a political solution, as opposition and government forces dig in for the continuation of the nation’s bloody civil war.
Opposition officials spent days meeting in Istanbul this week to develop a unified negotiating strategy, pressed by US and French officials, before making the announcement. In addition to calling for an agreement to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power before they’ll engage in talks, opposition officials said they would not attend Geneva as long as Iranian and Hezbollah fighters are inside Syria and “massacres are taking place.”
The decision follows a number of military setbacks for the Syrian opposition. Rebels appear to be on the brink of losing Qusayr, a strategically important town along the border of Lebanon, and a recent report by the German intelligence agency indicated that the Assad military is poised to make significant advances.
“If [the opposition] were in a significantly stronger position, perhaps there would be more of an openness, but it’s common sense that you don’t want to negotiate when you’re at your weakest and your opponents are at their strongest,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “There’s a broader existential moment here, that we’re talking about transition plans and reorienting the political opposition, and including more members, but all of that is moot if the rebels lose. I think it’s dawning on people now finally that the rebels might not actually win."
Even before the opposition's decision to skip the talks in Geneva, few expected results. The Syrian National Coalition remained divided on a number of issues and lacked the support of many people inside Syria. Though the Syrian government agreed to attend the conference without conditions on Wednesday, it remained highly unlikely government officials would consider the rebel’s demand for Assad to step down as part of any political settlement.
With a negotiated settlement off the table for now, fighting throughout Syria is likely to intensify. This week, the European Union agreed not to renew a weapons embargo on Syria, paving the way for member states to send weapons to opposition forces.
In the US, a Senate bill to support the opposition is gaining traction. Senator John McCain, who has long called for increased American involvement in Syria, visited rebels inside the country on Monday. Now he says the US can provide weapons to rebels without them potentially falling into the wrong hands, which has long been a point of concern for many American officials.
Sami Moubayed, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, says that despite the coalition’s decision today, peace talks are still possible.
“The more they bicker among themselves, the more credibility they are losing on the Syrian street. Even worse, the more they quarrel, the more people die," Mr. Moubayed says. "The latest fiasco at Istanbul, where they failed at expanding the alliance, only adds to Western fears of what post-Assad Syria would look like with such a disunited opposition. Painful concessions are required here, and one of them, no doubt, will be accepting the political process of Geneva."