Hopes of a peace deal to end the bloodshed in Syria may move a faltering step closer in London today at a meeting between the opposition leadership and its international backers.
The aim is to present a coherent and united front at a much-delayed summit next month in Geneva with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its principal backers, Russia, starting a process which is supposed to pave the way towards a political settlement. The chances of the two sides – which have acted with increasing savagery over the past two and half years, as the bodies piled up – reaching a consensus appear to be slim. But the fact that the talks are being held at all is being regarded as an achievement. Just two months ago the chances seemed remote.
The catalyst was the chemical attack on Ghouta, east of Damascus, which both sides blamed on each other, though a UN report seemed to suggest the attack may have come from the regime side. Subsequent talks between the US and Russia avoided military action by the Obama administration – which had been extremely reluctant to intervene in the first place – and breathed new life into the idea of a general search for a ceasefire.
The possibility of the Geneva talks had been raised during a Nato foreign ministers’ conference in Brussels in April this year; John Kerry’s first as US Secretary of State, where preliminary discussions were held with his Kremlin counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
The Americans strongly hinted that a key precondition they had insisted on at the behest of the rebels, that President Assad must step down before any talks could take place, could be dropped. However, the divided opposition would not agree to attend. The regime also rowed back on its willingness to take part after making gains on the ground, such as the capture of the strategic town of Qusayr, with the help of the Lebanese Shia group, Hezbollah.
Overall, the backers of the rebels appear to have arrived at the view there cannot be no military solution to the conflict. Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the two main backers of the hardline Islamist rebel factions, are said to be worried about the rise of the al-Qa’ida group ISIS (Islamist State of Iraq and Syria). Indeed, the Qatari foreign minister, Khalid al-Atiyah, had been meeting opposition leaders in Istanbul to prepare them for the London and Geneva meetings.
But significant difficulties remain. A number of senior figures in the opposition Coalition have condemned the talks. Wasil al-Shamali, of the Syrian National Council, was adamant: “We will not go to Geneva. Sitting with the regime will topple the firm principles of this revolution. The most important one of these is not sitting with this murderous regime which has killed our children, violated our honour and destroyed our cities.”
Major General Salim Idris, the head of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which claims to represent the rebel fighters, has not yet publicly stated whether or not he would attend Geneva. But his own position is tenuous, with the FSA side-lined inside Syria and 13 khatibas (battalions) declaring that they do not recognise his authority or that of the opposition Coalition.
However, Ahmad al-Jabra, the Coalition president, is prepared to participate in the talks, albeit with the caveat that there must be a “clear timetable” and it does not turn into “an open-ended dialogue with the regime.”
Western diplomats stress the way ahead remains uncertain. But, as one British official added: “When you have a situation as bleak as Syria, you need to seize any chance of progress. These negotiations will be imperfect, we know that, but you surely must try to do everything one can to end this daily routine of killings?”