BEIRUT: Syria’s opposition National Coalition has left for a peace conference in Switzerland this week fractured over its participation and facing doubts about its ability to implement any deal.
The Turkey-based coalition is considered a leading representative of Syria’s opposition, but has struggled to present a united front even as it faces challenges to its legitimacy on the ground.
Saturday it voted 58-14 with two abstentions to attend the so-called Geneva II talks in Montreux.
But 45 coalition members refused to even vote and the group’s largest component, the Syrian National Council, announced it was quitting over participation in the talks.
“The whole idea of Geneva is flawed,” council member Samir Nashar told AFP ahead of the vote.
“It is based on bridging the demands of the Syrian regime and the opposition, placing them on an equal footing. We reject this,” he said.
Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, said the SNC’s withdrawal was largely aimed to protect it if the peace talks fail.
“If the coalition falls on its face, you have different groups that are jockeying to assume the main position again,” he told AFP. “That’s one of the main reasons that the SNC took the position it has.”
And he noted that the SNC, and the Muslim Brotherhood which belongs to it, retained some members inside the coalition so it would not be excluded if the talks led to real dialogue.
The SNC withdrawal had been widely expected because of its long-standing opposition to the talks.
A more crucial obstacle to the peace talks is likely to be the division between the opposition and the regime on the future of President Bashar Assad.
Syria’s government said his departure was not on the table, but coalition chief Ahmad Jarba said Saturday the talks would be a “turning point” in the war to topple the Syrian leader.
“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.
Jarba insisted that the coalition would attend the peace talks “with our heads held high.”
But the grouping also goes to Switzerland having failed to completely win any of the concessions it sought before the talks, including opening humanitarian aid corridors and the release of prisoners.
“We asked for making the formation of the transitional governing body the main agenda, and we got that in the [invitation] letter of the U.N. secretary-general,” coalition spokesman Louay Safi told AFP.
“We are not that happy with the progress in terms of opening humanitarian corridors,” he acknowledged, adding that there had been “a little progress” on prisoner releases.
“But we feel the international community has been trying to help us,” he said.
Expectations remain low among many in the opposition, who fear the talks will end without a plan to remove Assad and could grant the regime more legitimacy.
But Safi said the opposition would not allow that.
“Of course, the public is split,” the spokesman added.
“But even those who don’t want us to go to Geneva, their main fear is that Assad will remain in power, which is something that we are not going to accept at all.”
The coalition faces an additional challenge in the form of questions about its influence on the ground, with many fighters dismissing it for working from the comfort of Istanbul rather than Syria’s front lines.
Last week, a diplomatic source said that representatives from four rebel groupings met in Turkey for talks on the coalition’s participation in Geneva.
And Saturday, Safi said at a news conference that three of the groups had agreed.
But he added that the powerful Islamic Front, an alliance of seven rebel militias not part of the mainstream Free Syrian Army, remained opposed, and that could threaten the coalition’s ability to implement any deals reached in Geneva.
Many civilian activists are also deeply unhappy with opposition attendance at the talks.
“Any participation in the Geneva Conference is a betrayal that each participant will be held to account for,” wrote an activist under the name of Ummawi on Twitter.
Safi told AFP the Coalition had no illusions the talks would yield a quick resolution, but he said the opposition was determined not to cede moral high ground to the regime.
“We all have a lot of doubt. We don’t think the regime is serious,” he said. “But we don’t want to give the regime the opportunity to say, ‘We are for a peaceful resolution and the opposition is not.’”