Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Syria’s government and opposition will sit down at the negotiating table in Geneva on January 22, 2014, for the first time since the eruption of the civil war, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced on Monday.
In a statement declaring the official start date of Geneva II, the UN Secretary-General said: “The conflict in Syria has raged for too long. It would be unforgivable not to seize this opportunity to bring an end to the suffering and destruction it has caused.”
Ban hailed the efforts exerted by the United States and Russia, as well as UN and Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, in paving the way for the peace conference.
“We will go to Geneva with a mission of hope. The Geneva conference is the vehicle for a peaceful transition that fulfills the legitimate aspirations of all the Syrian people for freedom and dignity, and which guarantees safety and protection to all communities in Syria,” Ban said.
The latest news—with Geneva II being pushed back from an expected mid-December start but the conference being given a firm date for the first time—emerged after a meeting between the Syrian National Coalition and Brahimi. The meeting was also attended by Coalition Secretary-General Badr Jamous, senior leadership figures Abdel-Hakim Bashar, Abdulahad Astepho, and Nazir Al-Hakim, as well as US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford.
Leading Syrian National Coalition figure Ahmad Ramadan informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the delegation “sensed an understanding from Brahimi of the circumstances which could lead to the success of Geneva II, the most important of which being a peaceful transition of power in Syria instead of futile negotiations.”
Ramadan said the Coalition would wait to see the level of commitment expressed by some countries—particularly the US and Russia—to the decisions set out by the Friends of Syria meeting, Geneva I, and UN Resolution 2118. Given that the UN has now officially announced that Geneva II will be going ahead in January, it appears that the Coalition has reacted favorably to the latest diplomatic push to secure the holding of the peace conference. Alternatively, some analysts view the announcement as an attempt to exert further pressure on the opposition parties to attend.
Coalition member Samir Al-Nashar told Asharq Al-Awsat that the meetings held by the Coalition over the last two days in Geneva aimed to “clarify and confirm the position on participating in the conference.”
He added that this followed confusion resulting from the announcement that the Coalition was prepared to attend Geneva II if specific conditions were met, with some viewing this statement as explicit agreement that the Coalition would attend.
Nashar said that the meetings in Geneva aimed to send the message that “the Coalition is not ready to participate in the conference and will not participate even if a date is set, unless it receives clarifications and guarantees which forces the Assad regime to commit to the decisions of the conference.”
Nashar added: “The Syrian National Coalition wants clear answers to fundamental questions, most importantly regarding Assad’s position and future role during the transitional phase…and Iran’s participation in the conference.”
He added that the Coalition strongly rejects Tehran’s attendance at Geneva II as long as the Iranian military is participating in the “war against the people of Syria.”
Syrian National Coalition Secretary-General Badr Jamous said the aim of the latest visit to Geneva was to “consult with active parties to prepare a suitable atmosphere to hold Geneva II, by pressuring the Syrian regime to end its attacks on civilians, lift the siege, and release Syrian detainees.”
The Syrian National Coalition has agreed to attend Geneva II on condition that the conference will lead to the formation of a transitional ruling body with full powers, including presidential, military and security powers, in addition to guarantees that President Assad and his aides will play no role during the transitional phase.
Nashar told Asharq Al-Awsat that there has been no direct contact between the Syrian National Coalition and the “domestic opposition”, such as the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change and former Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil, in order for the opposition to attend Geneva II as part of a single unified delegation, which had been a Russian demand.
Moscow has refused to consider the Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people, and accused it of monopolizing the opposition.
In another development, a new report by the London-based Oxford Research Group, entitled Stolen Futures—the Hidden Toll of Child Casualties in Syria, has said that more than 11,000 Syrian children have been killed in the crisis.
The report said that of the 11,420 victims aged 17 and under, more than 70 percent died from “explosive weapons”, air strikes and artillery shells fired on civilian areas, while hundreds were summarily executed, killed by torture or sniper fire.