Why Syria peace conference is a tough sell for Kerry: Assad wants to come

Secretary Kerry is traveling to London to boost support for a Syria peace conference. Rebels view Assad's intentions with suspicion, but the US hopes to find support among the many opposition groups.

Michel Euler/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at the US embassy for a meeting with the Arab League in Paris, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. Kerry travels to London Tuesday to boost support for a Syria peace conference.

With the Syrian civil war stuck in a bloody stalemate, Secretary of State John Kerry travels to London Tuesday to try to advance the convening of an international peace conference aimed at replacing the fighting with a political transition.

Yet while Secretary Kerry has recently called such a conference “urgent” for halting a conflict that has left more than 110,000 Syrians dead and several million more either homeless or stranded outside the country as refugees, much of the Syrian opposition that the US sides with views the conference as capitulation to an ascendant Bashar al-Assad.

So the question hanging over Kerry’s meetings with “friends of Syria” – mostly European and Arab countries seeking a political transition from the Assad regime – and representatives of Syria’s moderate opposition forces, is this: Can opposition elements be convinced that attending an international conference is in their interest?

The key for Kerry and other opposition supporters may be in convincing enough of what the State Department acknowledges are “thousands of different groups” in the opposition that their interests will be protected by the United States and other pro-opposition powers.

Working against Kerry, some opposition supporters say, will be two overriding doubts among opposition forces: one concerning US support, the other concerning President Assad’s intentions in attending a conference.

“The Syrian opposition representatives I talk to are very skeptical about real US support at a conference, because they have seen too many promises when nothing else happened, such as the promises of significant arms shipments,” says Farid Ghadry, founder of the US-based Reform Party of Syria and a longtime advocate of a more muscular US policy toward the Assad regime.

Also stopping many in the opposition from accepting the conference invitation is the fact that Assad now seems eager for the conference to take place.

“If Assad is ready to sit down with those he previously called terrorists, it’s not because he is ready to step aside or give up anything to them,” Mr. Ghadry says. “That’s why the opposition smells a rat in this conference.”

Speaking in Paris Monday, Kerry repeated the long-held US position that any political solution must include Assad’s departure from power. Responding to reports that Assad intends to run for reelection when his term ends next year, Kerry said, “If [Assad] thinks he’s going to solve problems by running for reelection, I can say to him, I think with certainty, this war will not end as long as … he is there” in the presidency.

Confusion has reigned for weeks over whether or not a conference is likely to take place.

On Sunday the head of the Cairo-based Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, announced that a conference bringing together representatives of the Assad government and the Syrian opposition would take place Nov. 23 in Geneva. But then the United Nations’ and Arab League’s Syria envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, said while standing at Mr. Elaraby’s side that in fact no date has been set for the so-called “Geneva 2” conference.

At the first Geneva conference on Syria, in June 2012, world powers seeking an end to Syria’s civil war – including the US and Russia – agreed on a plan for a cease-fire and humanitarian action. Called the Geneva communiqué, the plan calls for a political transition to a democratic government with representation by all of Syria’s ethnic and religious groups.

As difficult as reaching the Geneva communiqué was, convening a peace conference is even trickier, in part because neither the Assad regime nor the Syrian rebels have the upper hand after fighting that is now well into its third year.

Another reason is that the opposition and rebel forces are not united, and if anything are more fractured now than at the beginning of the fighting.

One of the opposition umbrella organizations, the Syrian National Council, has already rejected the idea of attending a Geneva 2 conference. Another group, the larger National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, known as the Syrian National Coalition, has not yet stated its intentions concerning a conference.

Another cloud hanging over any hopes for a peace conference comes from the rising power of extremist Islamist organizations inside Syria. That growing presence and influence is a result of the Islamists’ successes on the battlefield, but also in organizing local governance and providing services to war-ravaged communities.

The Syrian opposition’s failings, including intense infighting, may be a major reason a peace conference is so hard to convene, as many Syria experts say. But others counter that a lack of unity and conflicting interests on the part of the opposition’s international backers are also a factor.

In a new assessment of Syria’s political opposition, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) faults the Syrian political opposition’s Western and Arab allies for how “their own mixed signals, independent agendas, and poor coordination have undermined the structures they ostensibly seek to empower.”

Whether or not Kerry and the other “friends of Syria” plan to address their own lack of coordination toward Syria’s opposition in their London meeting remains to be seen.

But the ICG concludes in its report that such an effort is urgent. Opposition backers need to coordinate their material support, including “on the military front,” the report says.

In addition, the ICG finds that both the opposition and its international backers need to develop a more “effective strategy” for confronting the threat posed by the Islamist extremists, including groups affiliated with Al Qaeda, as they gain ground among Syria’s civilian population.

One thing about the extremists seems certain: They have no interest in attending a peace conference they wouldn’t be invited to anyway. So while the Assad regime and opposition forces jockey for the upper hand at a peace conference, the Islamist extremists are likely to continue growing their foothold in Syria.

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