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What Syria’s Government and Opposition Will Bring to Geneva

A second round of peace talks is set to begin on Jan. 22 in Geneva. The talks, brokered by the U.N. and supported by the West, come after the first set of talks failed to negotiate a truce, or even concessions, between the Assad government and its opposition.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

On Nov. 26, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called the coming meeting a “mission of hope” whose aims include “the establishment, based on mutual consent, of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, including over military and security entities.

“At long last and for the first time, the Syrian government and opposition will meet at the negotiation table rather than the battlefield,” he said. 

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We asked Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, to weigh in on what each side will bring to the negotiating table.

Syria Deeply: Why did the opposition finally agree to attend?

Nadim Shehadi: I think the opposition is going because it can’t not go, because they’ll be under too much pressure from their allies who are committed to this, like the Americans and Europeans. But they also have to balance that with their own public opinion: if they go, they will lose credibility on the ground.

They cannot abstain and they have to balance that with looking like they are compromising with the regime to a population that largely does not see them as credibly representative. They have support, but their credibility is challenged because they haven’t been able to deliver anything yet, and this could damage their credibility among civilians on the ground even further.

SD: Why did the regime agree to send a delegation?

NS: The regime is trying to sit on both sides of the table and talk to itself. The regime has its own licensed opposition, like the Damascus-based National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, and they’re pushing them as a legitimate opposition. [In 2012, Free Syrian Army leaders said the NCC was an extension of the government and “just the other face of the same coin.”]

They recently put a couple of NCC members in jail to increase the perception that they’re a legitimate opposition. And that opposition will probably go to Geneva to try to eclipse the [Syrian National] Coalition’s delegation.

So the regime is gung-ho because it’s in a strong position, knowing it has the full support of Russia and Iran, and even the other side of the negotiating table will have some of their own people on it.

The government will form an official delegation. But really, what’s most significant is that they will also be represented on the opposition side. Until now, they’ve been trying to promote Riat Hijab as opposition, along with Ali Hader. But both are pro-regime: they speak the narrative of the regime.

SD: What will the negotiations look like?

NS: The opposition will insist on the application of Resolution 2042, and Geneva I, which includes the six-point plan to stop hostility, to stop bombing civilians and to allow access of the media, to release prisoners starting with women and children and to form an interim government.

The opposition will insist on Bashar al-Assad not being part of that. They’ll say Assad should hand over his powers to a deputy who will then form a new government. They will come with a plan to have elections and Assad will win with 87 percent instead of 96 percent. They will say, “Let the Syrian people decide.” They will of course refuse to recognize either the opposition or the armed opposition: for them they are all terrorists.

Meanwhile, the government will say it has a reform plan and it wants to apply it, and this has to be decided by the Syrian people through elections, and that it will not compromise with terrorists and foreign-backed puppets. If I were asked to write Moallem’s speech, that’s what I would start with. And then I would say that they’ll question the legitimacy of the opposition, of those sitting on the other side of the table. What do they represent?

They will use the extremists during the talks: the extremists are the greatest asset the regime has. The regime will capitalize in Geneva on its position of “being on the side of fighting terrorism.”

SD: Do you expect a better outcome here than at the first Geneva talks?

NS: Overall, I think the exercise will be futile. It’s the international community wanting to do something for the sake of not doing nothing. The regime is capable of extending this for a very long time. They’re in a strong position mainly because of the very weak international position.

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