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The Syrian opposition is at risk of being painted as the obstructionist in efforts to negotiate an end to Syria's war now that the Assad regime has voiced its support for peace talks in November.
The opposition has so far vowed to boycott the talks – known as Geneva II – which will be held Nov. 23, according to an announcement by Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil at a Moscow press conference today.
"Geneva is a way out for everyone: the Americans, Russia, the Syrian regime and the opposition. Whoever realizes this first will benefit. Whoever does not realize it will find himself overboard, outside the political process," Mr. Jamil said, according to Reuters.
The US and Russia have intensified efforts to bring the two sides to the table since President Bashar al-Assad agreed last month to a plan to dismantle his country's chemical weapons arsenal and join the Chemical Weapons Convention, averting a military strike by the US.
Jamil voiced optimism that the talks would happen and the opposition would participate. Although he did not give a reason for his confidence, Russia's RIA Novosti reports that a United Nations diplomat told the news organization that the UN was working to convince the Syrian National Council – the "core" of the opposition's main political body, the Syrian National Coalition – to attend the talks.
But even if the Syrian National Council attends, it is a much weaker group. The council is losing the support of anti-Assad parties, with jihadi groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra rejecting the idea that they are represented by the umbrella organization. Even the less-religiously motivated Free Syrian Army has distanced itself from the SNC.
Michael Young, opinion editor at Lebanon's Daily Star, writes in The National, that the opposition's rejection of the Geneva talks – although they have little chance of success – "will only help Assad."
The Syrian National Coalition is aware that it risks further undermining its legitimacy and relevance – already weak and growing weaker because of the increasingly powerful jihadist groups on the ground – if it appears to accept Assad's continued rule of Syria by negotiating with his representatives. While those concerns have real grounding, refusal is risky, Mr. Young writes. It would allow Assad to "reaffirm that the opposition has no desire for peace" at a time when Washington and Moscow are eager for an agreement.
More problematically, by rejecting the principle of negotiations, the National Coalition will deny itself a natural venue in which it can participate. Neither the council nor the coalition is a military force. Their comparative advantage comes from their role as political representatives, requiring negotiations without which it is difficult to see what role the coalition can play, beyond issuing statements.
… This may not mean much today; the opposition has been disappointing and its international and domestic performance has been inadequate. Relations between the two are at low point, but that does not mean the National Coalition can afford to let this situation worsen and to be regarded as an obstacle to a settlement.
As the jihadists gain ground, many countries will buy into Mr. Al Assad’s narrative that his regime is a barrier to extremist groups. That he has done everything in his power to bring about this outcome is secondary. If the conflict is redefined as one between a supposedly “secular” regime and religious extremists, Mr. Al Assad will have the latitude to gradually regain lost territory and many governments will turn a blind eye to his most barbaric crimes.
That is why Mr Sabra and his colleagues should maintain themselves as a reasonable, temperate alternative to the armed groups and to Mr Al Assad. A continuation of the military status quo is likely, which means that at some point the parties, out of sheer exhaustion, will have to negotiate, whatever their prior conditions.
Frederic Hof, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center on the Middle East and a former liaison between the US government and the Syrian opposition, writes that the public refusal by George Sabra, president of the Syrian National Council, was "wrong in tone and unhelpful in substance."
Mr. Sabra should have said something like this, in a private venue, Mr. Hof writes:
There is, at present, no basis for a Geneva peace conference. There is no agreement between the P3 (the United States, France, and the United Kingdom) and the P2 (Russia and China) about the meaning of political transition in Syria. The regime is clear: the person, position, and power of Bashar al-Assad are not up for discussion at Geneva.
… The P3 seems desperate to have a meeting anyway; maybe even to start a drawn-out Syrian peace process. But this puts our people in peril. Surely the regime will step-up its artillery and air assaults on our towns and cities. Surely it will use its troops, criminal gangs, and foreign militias to increase ground assaults. The announcement of a meeting date will be a starting pistol for enhanced slaughter. … Unless this conference has agreed terms of reference on full political transition consistent with the June 30, 2012 Geneva Final Communiqué, and unless it is preceded by confidence-building measures consistent with Annan's six point plan, we should demand of our friends to postpone it indefinitely. If we fail, we are finished, one way or the other.
"Nothing would please the Assad regime more than to see what remains of its Syrian nationalist, nonsectarian opposition broken and discredited by coming to Geneva while regime artillery, air, rocket, and missile forces kill and terrorize Syrians," Hof writes. "Does the United States and its allies really want the opposition to show up under these murderous circumstances? … What good would the West expect such a gathering to produce?"