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Inside Syria

The scramble for Geneva II

Syrian peace talks are in jeopardy as the main opposition group refuses to attend the conference.

Last Modified: 27 Oct 2013 11:22
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The diplomatic maneuvering and renewed calls for peace talks on Syria have failed to reach any breakthrough as the Friends of Syria, a group of Western and Arab foreign ministers, could not persuade Syrian opposition leaders to attend the Geneva II peace conference planned for next month.

Their talks in London, aimed at building unity, have instead highlighted even more divisions.

Members of the Syrian National Coalition maintain sitting down with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would make them traitors to the revolution. Their leader, Ahmad al-Jarba laid down tough demands if his group is even to consider attending the Geneva II talks.

"The aim was to remove the criminal from power and the war criminals are tried - then we welcome Geneva II. These are our true demands and this is where we stand, and to build on these principles, together we will rid Syria and the region of the spreading fire. These are requests not conditions. But Geneva II cannot be a success without these," he said.

We are in favour of Geneva II. But we want clarity on the framework and the basis of these negotiations…The base of this is to implement the Geneva communique, which in fact impels the creation of a national transitional government with full executive authorities including those security and military powers that in fact entrusted with the Assad regime. In that kind of understanding we really don't see any role for Assad. From our point the other side hasn't accepted that basis nor in fact some of its friends. So unless we have that clarity through an invitation letter from Mr Ibrahimi [UN and Arab League Envoy to Syria] I don’t see any prospect of Geneva II.

Najib Ghadban, the representative of the Syrian National Coalition at the UN

The US, on the other hand, believes that there is no alternative to diplomacy and that no side can win this war on the battlefield.

"It is clear that both sides will continue to fight and to fight and to fight. And, in the end, the greatest victims, the people who suffer the most, are the Syrian people themselves, who are being driven from their homes and killed in the most wanton violence," US Secretary of State John Kerry said recently.

This disarray, some experts believe, has its roots in the conflicting positions among the international backers of Syrian opposition groups.

"A lot of this has to do with sort of disarray among the opposition's backers. We often focus on the infighting amongst the political blocks of the coalition. However, at the various phases of this conflict the opposition's closest allies have been at odds in some cases and in other cases they are not simply cooperating … A lot of times it has been about Saudi-Qatari competition. Currently it's not at all clear that Saudi Arabia and the US are on same page with regards to Geneva among other things," explains Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst on Syria for the International Crisis Group.

On the ground, there is no sign of letting up in the bloodshed and displacement.

In the latest violence, more than 100 people were killed in a car bomb in the Syrian capital Damascus. The explosion happened outside a mosque just after Friday prayers.

According to rights activists, this was the aftermath of a government bombardment of a rebel-held Damascus suburb on Friday. Trying to escape this destruction, they said, around five million Syrians are now refugees in their own country. Many are sheltering in empty buildings and schools, while others are in more formal but basic camps. Nearly all are reliant on outside help. 

But the UN says increasing violence and red tape has reduced aid deliveries to a trickle. In fact a Security Council statement at the beginning of October urging increased humanitarian access has not made much difference.

"I have expressed my deep disappointment to the council that the situation on the ground has not changed fundamentally as a result of the statement. We are doing everything that we can to look at ways in which operationalisation of the statement would help us. But I need the political support of the Security Council members, but also other members of the United Nations, to really make a difference," UN top humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said.

The Security Council resolution on Syria's chemical weapons threatens consequences for non-compliance. But Amos said the Syrian government and rebel groups have largely ignored the humanitarian appeal because it is non-binding.

Both sides are accused of daily indiscriminate attacks on schools, hospitals, power plants and medical personnel. She said that no one is taking their obligations under international humanitarian law seriously.

While the government and the opposition fighters blame each other for the violence, it seems that any effort to meet even most basic humanitarian needs is failing.

But why is there so little will on any side to end the suffering? And what are the prospects, if any, for Geneva II peace talks to end the Syrian conflict?

Inside Syria, with presenter Laura Kyle, is joined by guests: Najib Ghadban, the representative of the Syrian National Coalition at the UN; Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst on Syria for the International Crisis Group; and Hannah Allam, the foreign affairs correspondent at McClatchy newspapers.

"The Assad regime is in a much more powerful position than it was just a year ago ... there is reluctance from them [the Syrian regime] to agree to any of these pre-conditions when it has the upper hand militarily ... It has got this chemical weapons deal that has averted, for the moment, any sort of military strikes. And with the US narrowly setting its interests in Syria now at chemical weapons I don't think the opposition can depend on the US for any help to tip that balance militarily to strengthen their hand at the negotiation table. So it's sort of you are going to negotiate these things or stay away and figure out the plan B."

Hannah Allam, the foreign affairs correspondent at McClatchy newspapers

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