Paris, Asharq Awsat—The Istanbul-based Syrian National Coalition announced that it has postponed its decision on whether to attend the Geneva II peace talks until January 17 after 43 members walked out of a meeting in what represents the latest sign of the widening schism in the ranks of Syria’s Western-backed opposition.
The delay comes less than two weeks before the United Nations-sponsored peace talks are scheduled to begin on January 22 in the Swiss city of Monteux on Lake Geneva. The first round of invitations have already been sent out by the UN, with questions remaining over whether the Syrian opposition and Iran will attend. Disparate Syrian opposition groups, including representatives of Islamist rebel groups, also met in the Spanish city of Cordoba on Thursday to discuss the peace talks.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Coalition source told Asharq Al-Awsat : “There have been strenuous efforts to persuade members who withdrew to reverse their decision.” The source added that a “committee consisting of the Coalition members, such as Riyad Seif and Nazir Al-Hakim, has been formed to continue discussions with those who withdrew and resolve the differences.”
In exclusive comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, the Coalition’s representative to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Adib Al-Shishakli said that those who withdrew “had expected the balance would shift at the last elections and the president of the Coalition would lose, but this did not happen and that is why they have taken this step [to withdraw].”
Coalition president Ahmed Al-Jarba was re-elected as president of the western-backed umbrella group earlier this week following a strong challenge from former Syrian prime minister Riyad Hijab.
“Due to its tyrannical nature, it is easy for the Syrian regime to form its delegation to Geneva II. However, it seems more difficult for us due to the multiple components of the Coalition and the differences in views,” Shishakli said.
Shishakli urged “members who withdrew from the Coalition to overcome and transcend the administrative differences,” and said the “Syrian revolution” was passing through a critical phase in light of the ongoing clashes between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on condition of anonymity, a high-level French official said that Paris was aware of the risks threatening the Coalition and the difficult situation facing Syria’s opposition.
The source said that in light of the current political situation and the implausibility of achieving a military balance on the ground, Paris is convinced that the safest thing would be for the Syrian opposition to participate in the Geneva II talks.
“The Syrian government is succeeding in rehabilitating itself in the international arena and media in two ways. First, it has invested in destroying its chemical arsenal. Second, it is trying to present itself as the side that is best equipped to protect Syria and the rest of the world from the blight of terrorism,” the French official said.
Preparations are under way in Paris for a meeting between the Coalition and representatives of the Friends of Syria—a group of the main 11 countries that support the Syrian opposition—on Sunday.