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Chances and challenges at Geneva II

The Syrian peace conference has been postponed several times. Now, the long-awaited talks have begun in Montreux. But what are the chances for an agreement and an end to the civil war in Syria? DW provides answers.

What is the goal of the conference?

The goal of the talks is to find a political solution for the civil war in Syria. To this end, the United States, Russia and the United Nations are seeking to bring representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition at the negotiating table. The conference is based on a resolution that came out of the Syria Peace Conference in June 2012 - also known as Geneva I, since this first Syria peace conference took place in Geneva. The declaration included the establishment of a transitional government, but it explicitly excluded withdrawal of President Bashar al-Assad.

Who are the Syrian negotiating partners?

It is clear that Assad won't be traveling to Switzerland. Instead, he'll send a delegation headed by Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim to the conference. The opposition will also attend the negotiations, although its participation was recently disputed because of Iran's possible participation. The Syrian opposition had demanded that as a precondition to Iran's participation, it pull its fighters out of Syria and formally acknowledge the resolution from Geneva I. The biggest opposition group - the Syrian National Council (SNC) - on January 18 voted in favor of participating in the conference. France and the US had wanted Iran to accept a Syrian transitional government with full executive powers. When Iran expressly chose to not accept these preconditions, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon withdrew the UN's invitation.

Ahmad al-Jarba (Photo: Eduardo Munoz/REUTERS)

Ahmad al-Jarba, head of the SNC, will attend the conference in Montreux, Switzerland

The Free Syrian Army (FSA), or the rebels' armed forces, had already announced its intention to boycott the peace talks. FSA commander Salim Idriss wouldn't consider a ceasefire. His troops won't stop fighting during or after the conference, he said. The FSA as well as the SNC are supported by the West and the Persian Gulf states.

The Islamist rebel groups, which are increasing in strength, won't attend the talks in Montreux - they have not been invited, and in any case have refused to negotiate with the Syrian regime. The Islamists have accused the moderate forces of recognizing Assad's dictatorship that their participation in the talks. They announced that any group attending the conference should be labeled a traitor.

The various opposition groups are estranged, and are partly fighting each other. The SNC has dissociated itself from radical Islamist movements.

What international players are attending the conference?

Selim Idriss (Photo: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

FSA leader Salim Idriss is refusing to negotiate with the Assad regime

Four international institutions (the UN, European Union, the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) representing 30 countries from all around the world will take part in the conference.

What's the Assad regime's goal?

resident Assad considers himself to be the legitimate ruler of Syria and considers the opposition to be illegitimate - he consistently calls opposition fighters "terrorists." He is also intending to run for presidency in the 2014 elections, therefore the regime has been seeking to present itself as unyielding ahead of the conference. The official Syrian delegation won't travel to Geneva to hand over power, a representative of the Syrian foreign ministry has stated. Demands from the West and the opposition that Assad resign are "not up for discussion." The regime has also announced that it will not sign an agreement with "the terrorists," which in the regime's point of view includes the rebels and all its supporters.

At the conference, however, the delegation will sit at the table with members of various opposition groups. Ahead of the conference, the Assad regime has made some concessions, among other things offering a ceasefire for the city of Aleppo.

What does the opposition want?

The main goal of the opposition is Assad's resignation. Many would like to see Assad dead. The majority of the opposition wants a transitional government without Assad, or Assad officials who had suppressed the uprising. The transitional government should assure free and fair elections, and initiate democratic reforms. Additionally, the secret service and the army need to be reformed, said Sadiq al-Mousllie from the SNC. "It has to serve the people and not the regime," he said.

What are the positions at go?

The Assad regime has two advantages: the opposition is divided and estranged - there are deep divisions between secular and Islamic groups, including disagreements within the different groups. The opposition in Geneva will therefore not act in a unified manner, which could weaken its position. The huge presence of Islamists in particular plays into Assad's hands. This provides him the opportunity to present himself as the guardian of the state who can protect against the Islamists. The strategy has seemed to pay off: for some Western governments, the Assad regime appears as the lesser of two evils.

What are the chances for an agreement?

Bashar al-Assad (Foto: EPA/SANA)

Bashar al-Assad does not want to resign

US Secretary of State John Kerry was purposely very careful in the run-up to the conference. Nobody is underestimating the challenges. "We are well aware that the obstacles on the road to a political solution are many, and we will enter the Geneva conference on Syria with our eyes wide open," Kerry said. He called the conference "the best opportunity" to find a way out of the bloody conflict.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was also cautious. "Negotiations will be difficult, but without them, there is only bloodshed and despair on the horizon," he said.

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