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Syria's opposition sends mixed messages

The Syrian National Coalition has said it is prepared to attend the peace conference in Geneva. But the alliance has made such far-reaching demands that some observers doubt their willingness to negotiate.

The most important Syrian opposition alliance now seems to be prepared, after all, to participate in a proposed peace conference in Geneva. Following two days of discussion in Istanbul, the Syrian National Coalition declared on Monday (11.11.2013) that it would revise its pre-conditions.

In the past weeks, individual representatives of the alliance had placed very strict conditions on negotiations with the Syrian government under President Bashar al-Assad. But their change of position in itself does not clear the path to the conference known as "Geneva II." And analysts doubt whether the SNC really is serious.

Khaled Al Salih, director of the SNC's media department, presented four demands in Istanbul: military action in the country must end, political prisoners must be released, corridors for aid deliveries must be opened in besieged areas, and finally the Syrian government must make a concrete timetable for a transitional government without Assad. But these hurdles are still too high for a potential conference in December.

Residents run from a fire at a gasoline and oil shop in Aleppo's Bustan Al-Qasr neighbourhood October 20, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Haleem Al-Halabi)

The war in Syria has been raging for more than two years

Difficult demands

Bente Scheller, director of the Middle East department at Germany's Heinrich Böll Foundation in Beirut, does not see any significant changes in the SNC's position. "They're trying to find reasons not to be able to go," she told DW. But at the same, she said, the organization did not want to create the impression that it was against talks. At the end of the day, she said, the demands are impossible to fulfill.

Michael Stephens of UK Think Tank Royal United Services Institute thinks the SNC's strategy is being guided by foreign pressure. The European Union and the Gulf States in particular want to bring the SNC to the negotiating table. "I'm not convinced that the opposition's agreement to the talks is honest," he said. "I think it's a political tactic aimed at not losing the West's goodwill and the financial support of the Gulf."

Assad's future

A central question is whether and how Assad is to vacate his seat of power in Damascus. Opponents of the regime have often underlined that a political solution to the two-and-a-half-year-old war is unthinkable with Assad in power.

Even after the first peace conference in Geneva in June 2012, the five UN veto powers, and several Middle East states had declared they were in favor of a transitional government. But Russia had prevented Assad from being ruled out of any solution, and so the conference had not come to anything. The call will now be on the table at the proposed second conference, which has already been postponed several times.

The different opposition groups cannot agree on whether to demand Assad's resignation in advance, or merely as an outcome of the talks. In October, Georges Sabra, president of the Syrian National Council, demanded that the UN Security Council guarantee a transitional government without Assad, and warned that without such a guarantee his organization, which is part of the SNC, would not travel to Geneva.

Saleh, on the other hand, left this question open in Istanbul. "Assad and his allies will have no place in the political process in Syria," he insisted, but did not say when the president should step down.

According to British researcher Stephens, Qatar and Saudi Arabia - both financial backers to the opposition movement - have been calling for Assad's immediate resignation, but he predicted that the conference would have no success under these conditions. "Assad must be able to keep this trump card to the end," he said. Presumably, however, the president will try to influence the elections planned for 2014 and so hope to force some kind of compromise deal.

A handout picture made available by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaking during a television interview with Tunisian Journalist Ghassan Bin Jeddo from Al Mayadeen TV in Damascus, Syria, 21 October 2013. (Photo: EPA/SANA HANDOUT)

The Syrian opposition cannot agree on when Assad should go

Lacking authority

The fractured opposition is not only weakened by infighting over the fate of Assad. The lack of a power base in Syria is making it more and more unlikely that the SNC will be able to negotiate with the necessary authority over the future of Syria. "The problem is that it already has very little legitimacy, because the coalition has never managed to do anything major inside the country," commented Scheller from the Heinrich Böll Foundation - a number of opposition groups do not even belong to the SNC.

For this reason, she is not holding her breath hoping that the conference really will take place in December. "I fear that currently, neither side is willing enough to achieve unity," said Scheller, while Stephens also points out that Assad has little reason to give in as long as he can count on the backing of Russia and Iran. "I don't see many reasons for him to negotiate," he said.

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