WASHINGTON — U.S.-Russian plans for a long-delayed summit on Syria appeared to collapse Tuesday, with the United Nations’ special envoy to Syria suggesting that the opposition’s perpetual disarray was to blame for the failure to begin negotiations on a political settlement to the conflict.
U.N. and Arab League special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi spoke at a news conference in Geneva, where U.S., Russian and U.N. officials met in hopes of a breakthrough that would allow them to announce a date for a “Geneva 2 conference,” so called because it builds on an earlier framework for talks to end the war that’s raged for more than two years, with a death toll beyond 100,000.
No such agreement was reached, however, and Brahimi strongly suggested that the onus lay on the Syrian Opposition Coalition, which has been unable to resolve its internal differences and assemble what Brahimi called a “credible delegation” to meet with members of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government. He said the United States, Russia and the U.N. would meet again Nov. 25 to assess progress after scheduled opposition meetings, though he appeared skeptical of the opposition’s ability to do even that. “I don’t know whether they’ll meet or not,” he said.
Using strikingly blunt language for a veteran diplomat, Brahimi declared the opposition “not ready.” “They’re divided; it’s no secret to anybody,” he said.
Still, Brahimi said he hoped the conference could materialize before the end of the year, though he certainly didn’t sound optimistic that the longtime sticking points would be resolved.
“We did not discover this morning we wouldn’t be able to announce it, and the opposition is one of the problems we’re facing,” a visibly exasperated Brahimi told reporters.
Gennady Gatilov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, sounded skeptical about the Obama administration’s ability to help the opposition build a delegation.
“We felt that the U.S. does not have enough leverage to consolidate the opposition,” Gatilov said, according to the Voice of Russia radio station.
At the State Department, spokeswoman Marie Harf said only that discussions were ongoing and that no date had been set for Geneva 2. Days ago, State Department officials said they expected the conference to take place in mid-November.
Analysts who monitor the Syrian civil war have long said that the Geneva summit was unlikely to take place. Part of the problem is the two sides disagree on what the goal of the talks should be. The opposition says it’s to form a transitional government that would not include Assad, while the Assad government says there should be no preconditions to the talks.
But a major aspect is that conditions on the ground don’t encourage either side to come to the table. The Assad government, which currently has the upper hand on the battlefield, has little incentive to bargain, while the U.S.-recognized opposition carries an enormous political risk as well as the threat of retaliation from armed groups that have declared participation in Geneva 2 an act of treason.
“When you’re facing military setbacks, when your ranks are divided, and you’re disconnected from what’s supposed to be your popular base, I don’t see how they could’ve gone (to Geneva 2) without committing political suicide,” said Faysal Itani, a fellow with the Washington-based Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
Both the Syrian government and opposition forces refuse to budge from long-held positions.
Syrian Opposition Coalition leader Ahmed Jarba said Tuesday that the group had decided not to participate in Geneva 2 without assurances of “its success as a process of transfer of power with all its components and institutions and organs,” according to a statement issued by the coalition.
“No to Geneva 2 without clarity in this goal, coupled with a specified timetable,” Jarba said, according to the statement.
Bouthaina Shaaban, an Assad adviser and spokeswoman, told Russia Today television on Tuesday that Syria would go to Geneva “without preconditions” and rejected the idea that the only goal of such talks was a transitional authority to succeed Assad. She dismissed the opposition coalition as a front for Saudi Arabia’s intelligence apparatus and charged that it only represented al Qaida, which has two factions fighting on the opposition side of the war.
Coalition leaders repeatedly have rejected al Qaida and other extremists on the battlefield, but they say that the jihadist presence is a natural offshoot of the U.S. and other Western nations’ unwillingness to send cash and weapons to the “moderate” rebel brigades. Saudi Arabia, both officially and through private donors, has continued to fund the insurgency, especially the Islamist elements.
With the U.S. determined to stay out of the military fray, said Itani of the Rafik Hariri Center, the Obama administration likely will keep pushing the opposition to embrace a political initiative. But that strategy, he said, is “incoherent” because of the U.S. refusal to help the rebels build “a robust armed opposition.”
“You’re pressuring them to participate in a political process that the armed opposition and many Syrians see as completely illegitimate and what are you giving them in return?” Itani said.
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