Syrian opposition splintered ahead of peace talks

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Associated Press

Posted on December 2, 2013 at 3:03 AM

Updated Monday, Dec 2 at 6:31 AM

BEIRUT (AP) — Within minutes of opening a Twitter account this past week, the leader of Syria's main Western-backed opposition group received an onslaught of criticism.

"Welcome to Twitter Mr. Western Puppet," one comment to Ahmad al-Jarba read. Others called him a Saudi stooge and scorned the opposition's perceived ineffectiveness.

The comments reflect the deep disillusionment and distrust that many Syrians have come to feel toward the Syrian National Coalition, Syria's main opposition group in exile. They also underline the predicament of who will represent the Syrian opposition at an upcoming peace conference in Geneva marking the first face-to-face meeting between Syria's warring sides.

The Geneva talks have raised the possibility of a negotiated end to a conflict activists say has killed more than 120,000 people. But with a fractured opposition, many have little hope for strong negotiations with emissaries of President Bashar Assad.

"Each of them represents himself and maybe his wife," said an anti-government activist in the central Homs province, who uses the pseudonym Abul Hoda. "Nobody here pays any attention to what they say."

The Syrian National Coalition is seen by many as a disparate group of out-of-touch exiles with inflated egos and non-Syrian allegiances. Syrians often deride it as the "five-star-hotel opposition" for spending more time meeting in luxury hotels than being on the ground in Syria.

Damascus-based opposition groups call members of the coalition traitors for demanding U.S. military airstrikes against Syria following a chemical weapons attack in August that killed hundreds. But groups known as the "internal opposition" are themselves seen as aging and submissive to Assad's government, incapable of playing an effective opposition role for fear of arrest.

More importantly, the rebel factions that hold the real power on the ground won't go to Geneva. Some of the most powerful Islamic brigades have distanced themselves from the coalition. Meanwhile, rebels are losing ground to a crushing government military offensive.

"Given the lack of unity amongst the opposition, the West and regional allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia will struggle to establish a representative negotiation partner that is willing to engage with the Syrian government," said Torbjorn Soltvedt, a senior analyst at the British risk analysis firm Maplecroft.

He added that negotiations likely will prove futile until there is a significant shift in the balance of power on the ground. "As such, the Syrian conflict is still likely to be decided on the battlefield," he said.

The Syrian foreign ministry said this week that it will send a high-level delegation to the talks with clear directives from Assad. Although it hasn't said who will be going, Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem is expected to head the delegation.

It is much less clear who from the opposition side will be at the talks. Their deep splits will make it extremely difficult to select a unified opposition delegation.

Western leaders have made clear they expect the coalition to be the chief negotiator on the opposition side at the conference, set for Jan. 22. The group has called on others to participate in a delegation under its command.

"The coalition will form the whole opposition delegation and it will lead this delegation. This is not up for discussion," senior coalition member Ahmad Ramadan said. "The coalition is the only side responsible for that."

The U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has said that the coalition will play a very important role in forming the delegation. "But I have always said that the delegation has to be credible and representative, as representative as possible," he said in Geneva last month.

Hassan Abdul-Azim, a veteran opposition figure in Syria who leads the Syria-based National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, said his group was ready to go to Geneva with a unified delegation made up of internal and external opposition group. But he said the coalition rejected the idea because it considers itself the only legitimate representative.

Many smaller opposition groups, including Kurdish parties, have not decided whether they will go and who will represent them. The coalition has said it will meet in Istanbul in mid-December to discuss the makeup of the delegation. But members of the group itself are split on the whole concept of a peace conference. Some of its senior members insist that Assad should step down and stand trial before any talks.

"In Europe, a train crash leads to government resignation. What about destroying half of Syria, displacing half its people and the killing and maiming of a million people?" asked opposition figure Kamal Labwani. "I am totally opposed to the Geneva conference."

Many believe the talks — if they go ahead — will be pointless, particularly now that Assad's forces have the upper hand in the fighting on the ground. The talks aim to establish a transitional government that would take over the country. But the opposition insists Assad must step aside, as the government says that's out of the question.

Gen. Salim Idris, the commander of the coalition's military wing known as the Free Syrian Army, said his faction will not take part in the talks and will not stop fighting until Assad is brought down by force. Meanwhile, frustration in the opposition remains clear, as it does in Twitter messages mocking Jarba's username "PresidentJarba."

"I find it disturbing you are calling yourself president already," one read. Another read: "100,000 Syrians martyrs and you ... still issue 'warnings.' No wonder ... Assad is still standing."

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Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed to this report.

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Follow Bassem Mroue on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bmroue .

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