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As Geneva talks approach, Syrian opposition undecided about attendance

January 17, 2014 at 2:00 PM EST
The Western-backed Syrian National Coalition is currently meeting in Istanbul to vote on whether it will go to upcoming talks in Geneva, aimed at bringing a political resolution to the war in Syria. Hari Sreenivasan talks to chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner about the internal conflict among the opposition.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: As the United States and others prepare for next week’s so-called Geneva II talks aimed at bringing a political resolution to the conflict in Syria, it’s still uncertain whether the country’s main opposition group will be attending. The Western-backed umbrella Syrian National Coalition is currently meeting in Istanbul to vote on whether it will go.

Joining me now to tell us more about the state of play and how the group’s decision will affect peace prospects is chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner. She will be in Switzerland covering the talks for us next week.

So, is it going to be a full house or is half at the party at the negotiating — negotiation table not showing up?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, or if — if the talks take place.

I just talked to somebody at this meeting. And, as you said, Hari, they were supposed to meet, the Syrian Opposition Council, or National Council, to decide today in Istanbul whether to go. They didn’t even start meeting until 10:00 p.m. And that’s a sign of the divisions inside.

So I just talked about 45 minutes to a member who stepped out to take the call, who said, we are in total disarray.

They are having an argument right now for the last three hours about what constitutes a quorum. I said, what?

And he said, well, a third of our members have walked out, the ones that represent the sort of local governing boards on the ground. He said, and another big chunk, which is a different group, which I won’t — I will spare you the acronym — has said, if the vote is to go, then we’re walking out, because we’re opposed to going. So, he said, we’d be down to only half our members.

Now, the group that walked out initially has promised to consider returning at 11:00 tomorrow. But he said, we’re going to have to debate. We would be down half our members. Do we have to waive the quorum requirement or redefine it?

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what is the argument against going or attending these talks at all?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, the argument for going, first of all, is: Our main patrons, the U.S. and Europeans, want us to go, and this is the way forward they sketched out.

The arguments against it are: One, by sitting down with the Syrian regime, they say we would legitimize the Syrian regime, which we have insisted they need to — Assad needs to go.

Two, as far as the Syrian opposition has been told, and the U.S. has said over and over, Secretary Kerry said it again today, the whole idea of this is this is based on this first Geneva I convention they had a year-and-a-half ago, is to create — begin creating a transitional governing body that would be without Assad, to pave the way for a new kind of government.

Well, the Syrian foreign minister put out a letter — or it was leaked actually this week — in which he didn’t — he accepted coming, but he didn’t accept that at all as the basis for it. He said it was to discuss fighting terrorism in Syria, which, of course, by which, he means all the rebel groups.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, the opposition fears that they will essentially go and be sold down the river, because you have got Russia really backing Assad. And, meanwhile, they see the U.S., in their view, as being almost too neutral, and that they’re just saying, oh, why don’t these parties sit down and have a conversation, and that the U.S. will be satisfied with smaller gestures, like a partial cease-fire or humanitarian access.

So, there is a lot of resistance within the opposition that they may be walking into a trap.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, speaking of that cease-fire, we’re starting to report Syria is making an offer.

Why would Syria make an offer of a cease-fire or a prisoner swap now?

MARGARET WARNER: I think it — sum it up to Russian pressure.

Secretary Kerry and Prime Minister Lavrov met in Paris this week. They have ongoing conversations all the time. And, essentially, Secretary Kerry urged Lavrov to lean on the Syrians to do this. And the Russians are playing the long game.

That is, it’s sort of akin to when the Russians persuaded Assad or told Assad it was time to give up his chemical weapons after that horrible attack last August. It — the Russians understand that the world is looking on at starving — we ran an incredible tape last night, these starving children, the aerial bombardment, these so-called barrel bombs, and that, in a way, by agreeing to a partial cease-fire, to let some humanitarian aid in, that it is a way of taking a little of the heat off.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And would the rebels on the ground accept a cease-fire?

MARGARET WARNER: That’s a really good question, because, first of all, let’s say this non-fighting group that is meeting in Istanbul goes, and they at the same time urge the rebels to accept this.

It’s — there’s no guarantee the rebels on the ground will actually carry it out. I did talk to someone here who is pretty close to one of the fighting forces — you know there are many, many fighting forces — who said they don’t trust the way the Syrian government uses cease-fires, that, in the past, what they have done is make a big declaration, but then they have all kinds of conditions about where they allow the cease-fire, which aid gets through and which aid doesn’t.

Do the people in the area that aid gets through to have to surrender whatever autonomy they have? So they don’t trust it. That said, this one person said to me, if Assad agrees, we can hardly say no, because then we will look to the world like we’re the obstructionists and we’re the ones letting our own people starve or be killed from overhead.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, considering there’s all these different factions on the ground, who represents them at the table, and if there is not that quorum, does the U.S. go anyway?

MARGARET WARNER: Great questions.

One, even if this opposition group goes, they don’t actually represent the fighting forces on the ground, and a lot of the fighting forces have said they don’t want a bunch of civilian exiles up there in Geneva making a deal, all right?

So, one, they don’t really represent the fighting forces. And, two, right now, publicly and to anyone I talk to privately, the U.S. refuses to even accept the proposition that the opposition may not come. So, Secretary Kerry has hinted, even in public, that, you know, if the opposition coalition doesn’t come, the U.S. may or the Europeans may wash their hands of them. He hasn’t said it in so many ways.

But they are their main patrons. And the U.S. has asked the Saudis to use their pressure on this group. But I think we all have to hope that the administration does have a plan B just in case that happens.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Margaret Warner, thanks so much.