Before the talks began, the opposition was divided on whether it should attend the talks; some political groups had refused to attend, most of the armed opposition groups rejected Geneva 2, and even the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the only opposition group to participate, was split on the issue. With the approval of one third of coalition members, the coalition hesitatingly sent a delegation to Geneva 2 at the USA’s insistence. The Bashar al-Assad regime was pressured by the Russian government to attend, despite the fact that it insisted that the opposition delegation was not representative of the Syrian opposition. Of the two opposing sides, the regime held the upper hand, especially with the bloody infighting within the armed opposition in Syria.
The stark contrast in the delegations’ interpretation of the goal of negotiations is an indication of the difficulties ahead. The regime aims to use the talks to get international recognition for its position that Syria is facing a ‘terrorist’ onslaught, and to build a global front against its enemies, while protecting the government and President Assad from any attempt at a negotiated ouster. The opposition hopes the talks will result in a political transition that will exclude Assad, and create a space for opposition groups to participate and, they expect, to take over the running of the country. Though both parties agree the negotiations should be guided by the Geneva Communiqué which emerged from the Geneva 1 conference in 2012, they interpret its stipulations differently.
Other complications that plague the dialogue – and especially the Syrian Coalition’s role – include the coalition’s limited ability to get fighters to abide by any agreement it might make. The regime can easily manipulate opposition divisions to its advantage. Further, the talks exclude Iran, the regime’s most important regional ally. Though opposition members have met with officials from the Russian government, the second most crucial supporter of the regime, they will have to engage with Iran in the near future if they want to reach agreement over Syria’s future. However, it was because of the opposition’s (and US) objection to including Iran in the first round of Geneva 2 talks that UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, withdrew his invitation.
The opposition delegation’s lack of representivity is also a complication. The coalition was loathe to allow any representation outside its umbrella, including objecting, in unison with USA, to separate representation for Kurdish groups that recently declared regional autonomy. Such positions give the impression that the Syrian Coalition and its international backers want to monopolise the space for the opposition and constitute it according to its wishes. This fosters suspicion among fighters inside Syria as well as among other political opposition groups. The opposition is strategically weak and politically compromised in relation to the coherent front the regime is able to mount. Creating the broadest possible opposition alliance – while acknowledging that some, such as the al-Qa’ida-linked fighters, will remain on the outside – is crucial if the opposition is to be taken seriously and not outmanoeuvred both by the regime and other international players, including state supporters of the opposition.
This should especially be of concern to the opposition since the role of al-Qa’ida affiliates and offshoots (such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – the latter was recently disowned by al-Qa’ida) is softening western and regional governments to the possibility that the best bet for containing the Syrian spillover might be a weakened, yet prolonged, role for the current Syrian regime. This has long been the view of the USA, and the current strength of al-Qa’ida groups strengthens this view.