BEIRUT: A powerful alliance of Syrian Islamist rebels rejected upcoming peace talks Sunday, meaning that even if the negotiations reach an unlikely breakthrough in the nearly 3-year-old civil war, it will be harder to implement it on the ground.
Syria’s main political opposition group in exile, the National Coalition, agreed Saturday to attend the talks beginning Wednesday outside Geneva, setting up the first meeting between President Bashar Assad’s government and its foes.
But the Islamic Front, an alliance of several Islamist fighting forces that represents a large portion of the rebels on the ground, said Sunday it rejected the talks.
Syria’s future would be “formulated here on the ground of heroism, and signed with blood on the front lines, not in hollow conferences attended by those who don’t even represent themselves,” Abu Omar, a leading member of the Islamic Front, said on his Twitter account.
Some 130,000 people have been killed and a quarter of Syrians driven from their homes in the civil war, which began with peaceful protests against 40 years of Assad family rule and has descended into a sectarian conflict, with the opposing sides armed and funded by Sunni Arab states and Shiite Iran.
Cold War foes Moscow and Washington, which have emerged as the leading pro- and anti-Assad powers, have urged both parties to make concessions, including cease-fires, access for aid and prisoner exchanges, to build confidence before the conference.
Russia’s Interfax news agency reported Sunday that Assad had told Russian lawmakers he would not yield power.
Syrian state media denied the quotes as “not accurate,” however.
It was not immediately clear why Damascus would object to a Russian agency reporting the president’s defiant line. State media said later Sunday that Assad had met Russian religious leaders and parliamentarians and called for an international effort to fight “terrorists,” the label Damascus uses for the armed opposition.
Western leaders have hailed the coalition’s decision to attend talks.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the opposition’s “courageous” decision to attend the talks, describing it as a “path that will ultimately lead to a better future for all Syrians.”
“We all know that the process ahead will be difficult, but I say directly to the Syrian people: We will stand by you every mile of the journey as you seek to achieve the freedom and dignity that all Syrians deserve,” he said in remarks echoed by Britain, France and Germany.
Russia, too, hailed the decision.
“That is the right decision, we have always said that one has to go to the forum and enter into dialogue with the government,” Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told the state ITAR-TASS news agency.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE also gave their backing Sunday to the opposition decision to join the talks. “In support of the rights of the Syrian people to decide their own future and defend themselves against the Syrian regime’s crimes,” Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates “welcome the decision by the National Coalition to take part in Geneva II,” they said a joint statement.
Both Gulf states, however, “affirm at the same time that Geneva II must aim to put an end to the Syrian people’s sufferings through creating a real political change in which [Assad’s] regime will have no role.”
The coalition voted Saturday by 58 to 14 to attend the peace conference in the Swiss town of Montreux, with only 75 of the around 120 delegates taking part in the secret ballot – a sign that strong disagreement persists.
Coalition leader Ahmad Jarba said the group was going to Switzerland to remove Assad from power.
“The Geneva II negotiation table is a one-way road aimed at achieving all the demands of the revolution ... and first and foremost stripping the butcher [Assad] of all his powers,” he said.
In Istanbul Sunday, the leadership of the Syrian National Coalition was meeting to decide on its delegation for the talks.
Senior coalition member Ahmad Ramadan said the meeting would decide who would negotiate with the Syrian government delegation at the so-called Geneva II conference.
Ramadan said the 15-member delegation would include two representatives of the country’s ethnic Kurdish minority, two for the rebels and two for opposition groups based in Syria.