BEIRUT: Leading opposition groups are showing little enthusiasm about attending a proposed Geneva II conference, whether they are based inside or outside Syria. The sponsors of the conference, the U.S. and Russia, saw their top diplomats Monday “recommit” themselves to efforts to move forward with the talks.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov met on the sidelines of a summit in Indonesia to discuss ways to “lay the groundwork for a round of talks.”
Kerry said they would meet the U.N.-Arab envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, to iron out a date for the summit.
But the head of the National Coalition, Ahmad Jarba, and the Turkey-based leadership of the rebel Free Syrian Army, have dismissed the idea of going to Geneva without “guarantees” that President Bashar Assad will leave power. The announcement was made Sunday after several days of talks between Jarba and rebel commanders.
During a news conference in Istanbul Monday, Jarba reiterated this stance, while adding a new condition, one day after U.N. Brahimi expressed his view that both Saudi Arabia and Iran should attend Geneva II.
“Iran is an occupying country,” Jarba said, and had no business attending a peace conference because its “mercenaries,” led by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, were involved in the fighting in Syria.
Jarba said Iran could attend alongside the Syrian regime, because both were involved in “killing our people.”
Hours after Jarba’s news conference, a State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said her country might view Iran’s participation favorably, if it accepts the Geneva I document, which explicitly called for a transitional government.
“If, and this is an if, Iran were to endorse and embrace the Geneva communique publicly, we would view the possibility of their participation more [favorably],” Harf said.
Also Sunday, 100 pro-rebel civil and military groups based in Syria demanded “no negotiations” with the regime.
A video recording of a spokesman reading out the statement was posted to YouTube. In the three-minute statement, Hama-based activist Saleh Hamawi, a member of the National Coalition, makes an explicit call for no talks with the regime.
The names of 100 groups backing the statement – 50 each from the civil and military wings of Syria’s uprisings – appear at the end of the video.
The Syrian Revolution General Commission, one of the largest networks of civilian activists, is the first signatory, and is joined by dozens of smaller organizations, from most parts of the country. The 50 military groups also represent rebel battalions and brigades from throughout Syria.
The “Statement of 100,” as it is titled, features mainly nationalist rhetoric, with little reference to Islamist politics or Syria’s future political order.
Hamawi addresses the National Coalition, demanding that it forget about making deals with the regime.
The statement enumerates a number of central demands: toppling the regime and all of its leading figures; holding war criminals accountable; dissolving state security bodies and replacing them with institutions “that implement the law,” while building a national army; maintaining the territorial unity of Syria; ensuring independent political decision-making that isn’t beholden to foreign agendas; rejecting negotiations with the regime because “there can be no negotiations with terrorists”; and rejecting any political commitment that violates Shariah.
The spokesman closes the statement with the secular slogan “Long Live a Free and Dignified Syria,” which was more prevalent during the first two years of the uprising, before Islamist groups became increasingly dominant.
An opposition activist based outside Syria told The Daily Star that the Statement of 100 was issued by groups who have been backed by Qatar. Among the most prominent military formations are the Asala wa Tanmiya rebel network, and the Yarmouk Brigade in the southern province of Deraa, both seen as enjoying good ties with Qatar.
In contrast, Jarba is supported by Saudi Arabia, which this summer took over from Qatar the leading role in backing Syria’s political opposition.
“[Opposition] groups now are engaged in a process of trying to outdo each other” in terms of their opposition to Geneva II, the activist said.
“Whether they represent the people is another question,” the activist added. “Many people just want a solution.”
The opposition groups are also setting down conditions that might be difficult to ensure in any kind of negotiated scenario.
Also Monday, the Syria-based National Coordination Body opposition group, which rejects the armed uprising, said it would attend Geneva without conditions.
National Coalition president Ahmad Jarba:
One hundred civil and military groups reject negotiations: