BEIRUT: As international wrangling continues over attendance in the countdown to the highly anticipated “Geneva II” peace talks, on the ground in Syria the response to the conference is lackluster.
Few people expect that the talks, scheduled to begin in the Swiss city of Montreux Wednesday, will end three years of bitter civil war.
The responses reflect one of the most problematic aspects of the negotiation process, namely the massive gap between those on the ground and those supposedly qualified to represent them.
Western countries and key Arab states say the Syrian regime has lost legitimacy through its brutal repression of peaceful protests and the indiscriminate killing of civilians using heavy weapons.
The opposition, largely in exile, paralyzed by infighting and disagreement, and lacking sway over the rebel forces fighting President Bashar Assad, is also struggling to retain its credibility.
The presence of Al-Qaeda militants has confused the picture, with many inside Syria now questioning the purpose of a negotiation process between Assad and his opponents, while, they say, an even greater enemy looms.
Most civilians on the ground express weariness after three miserable years of conflict and all have a desire for peace. But while that has translated into a willingness for compromise by some, for others it has only served to harden their resolve to win a battle that they say cannot be resolved through talks.
In the central city of Homs, university student Omar told The Daily Star he did not believe the talks would change anything on the ground.
Moreover, he said he did not believe international powers or the regime were sincere in wanting an end to the conflict.
“There was Geneva I,” he said, referring to an international accord on the need for a transitional government, agreed in June 2012, and the basis for the upcoming conference. “And that did nothing.”
“If they wanted to, they could end it at any time and just tell [Assad] to go. They don’t want it to end now.”
Rami, a shop owner from a government-held area of Damascus, agreed. “To be honest, it means nothing at all. It’s just another way of moving chairs and does nothing to help the Syrian people.”
While the talks were unlikely to settle differences between Assad and his opponents, he continued, he hoped they would at least stem armed clashes and find a way to end Al-Qaeda’s presence.
“The opposition is not organized and doesn’t have any strength on the ground, so they are negotiating on sand,” he said, referring to the exiled National Coalition, which has yet to decide whether to attend talks.
“The internal opposition is basically under the wing of the government,” he added.
He said the rise of the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) had changed the discussion, and while he remained opposed to Assad, the alternative was even more dangerous for Syria.
“The only way for the war to end is if the regime and the Free Syrian Army align to fight the extremists. Then they can begin a political solution,” he added.
“Getting rid of Al-Qaeda is the priority now.”
For activists like “Leena al-Sham,” who has been involved in the fight against the Assad regime since the outbreak of the revolution, such an outcome would fall well short of Syrians’ aspirations.
While the talks were “worth a try,” she said, many feared the outcome would benefit the regime and its allies.
“Most people think Geneva will serve the regime, especially since not one condition agreed by the regime was implemented,” she said, referring to demands talks be based on an agreement to withdraw troops, release political prisoners, and stop the siege on suburbs.
“But in case it does go ahead, I hope it stops the bloodshed – even for a while.”
While Syrians are tired, she said, those who had fought and lost family and loved ones over three years were far from ready to give up the fight.
“Some parties are pulling strings inside Syria to make things worse, so that Syrians will accept anything to end the agony.”
“They are saying that people are really tired and just want something to happen, but that doesn’t mean they will accept the results if they are unfair. It will have wasted all the sacrifices the Syrians made.”
In Aleppo province, where battles between ISIS and a collection of rebel groups have been raging, Alawite opposition media activist Loubna Mrie said the talks were irrelevant while the opposition had no connection to those fighting on the ground.
“The opposition doesn’t represent the fighters, so how can they enforce a cease-fire? These fighters have lost everything, and have been fighting for three years. They are not going to listen if someone writes a piece of paper in Europe telling them there is a cease-fire.”
“The regime has left no space for negotiations. And the revolutionaries are nowhere near giving up.”
In the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma, reeling from dire humanitarian conditions due to a firm government siege for over a year, Osama, an activist with the Local Coordinating Committees, suggested residents would welcome some relief, even if it meant compromise.
“I don’t want to expect too much in order not to get disappointed. Our hopes are very big; we hope the detainees will be released and that the siege will be over,” he said.
“But I am afraid those hopes are unlikely to be met.”
In the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli in the northeast, engineer Youssef said he was optimistic, but foresaw a drawn-out negotiation process. He listed the priorities for the talks in order of importance: “Cease-fire, the refugees, dealing with ISIS.”
“They will agree, not to stop the fighting, but because the refugee situation is a disaster for everyone.”