Geneva/Beirut/London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Negotiations on the Syrian crisis in Geneva appear to have suffered another setback on Friday as a planned face-to-face meeting between the Syrian government delegation and Western-backed opposition groups scheduled for later today was cancelled.
Instead, both sides were set to meet separately with joint UN–Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi during the day. However, shortly after one of the meetings, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mouallem issued a statement saying the government delegation would pull out of the negotiations as early as Saturday if “serious talks” did not begin.
As the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition prepared to meet the UN envoy later on Friday, the Coalition’s chief of staff Ahmed Al-Jarba said that the opposition was “not yet ready” to meet directly with the government side.
Jarba also stressed that at this stage the talks were “proximity negotiations” on humanitarian issues, aimed at ameliorating the suffering of those caught in a war that has so far killed more than 130,000 people and displaced millions more.
The opposition and the Western powers backing it have both indicated they will not hold serious talks with the Syrian government until it accepts the principles of the 2012 Geneva Communiqué, which include removing President Bashar Al-Assad from power.
In remarks on Tuesday before talks began Mouallem said Assad’s future was a “red line” the government delegation would not negotiate.
But the atmosphere at the talks had been clouded even before they opened in Montreux on Wednesday, with the fragmented opposition taking the decision to attend only days earlier.
Syrian opposition figures opposed to participation in the international conference under way in Geneva did praise a speech given by Jarba on Wednesday, despite having voted against attending.
The head of the Syrian National Council, George Sabra, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The speech by the head of the Coalition [on Wednesday] presented some of the concerns of the Syrian people, and clearly presented the Syrian people’s cause.”
The Council opposed participation in the Geneva II conference, and pulled out of the Coalition in protest at its decision to participate.
Sabra added that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mouallem’s speech on Wednesday “was written with the mentality of Qassem Suleimani [commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force] when he attacked states and religious trends, and accused conference partners of treason.”
The IRGC has supported Syrian government forces with training and equipment in its battles against Syria’s rebels.
Sabra said he hoped “the Coalition’s delegation during the next few days of negotiations would be successful in exposing the regime and achieve the aims of the revolution without making any concessions.”
Despite the Council’s withdrawal from the Coalition, five of its members joined the opposition delegation at the conference on Wednesday.
Sabra said: “Those who went to Geneva II from the Syrian National Council will be asked to explain the reasons for their violation of the decisions of the Council.”
He added: “The majority of Council members voted against participation in Geneva II,” and “a decision of this importance must be taken with the agreement of the majority of members.”
Members of the Council have accused Sabra of taking a personal decision not to go to Geneva II, without the knowledge of the executive bureau of the Council.
However, Sabra said: “Preparations for the international conference were not sufficient in terms of the state of the opposition and it was necessary for it to unite and turn into effective institutions.”
He called for “bridging the gap between the military arm of the revolution and its political arm before any international conferences.”
A member of the “44-Group” which withdrew from the Coalition ahead of the Geneva talks, Khalid Al-Khawja, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Jarba’s speech was exact and logical, and was based on facts and evidence, in contrast to Mouallem’s speech, which was an attempt to win the sympathy of participants without making any political points.”
Khawja added: “Jarba appeared more of a statesman than Mouallem, who is a veteran politician.”
“The regime’s delegation does not have the necessary powers at the negotiations because the orders do not come from (Syrian president) Bashar Al-Assad but from Iran,” he added.
Meanwhile, the National Coordination Committee, which represents part of the opposition inside Syria, also refused to participate in the Geneva II conference. The secretary of its branch for the Syrian diaspora, Majid Habbo, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The committee agrees with the chairman of the Coalition in his speech at the conference about the implementation of the decisions of Geneva II,” but he added: “It disagreed with him on raising the demands regarding the fate of President Assad.”