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Syrian Opposition Sets Conditions for Peace Talks

Hannah Schaeffer

Syria’s main opposition alliance voted Monday to attend peace talks in Geneva. The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) announced its decision in a joint statement after two days of talks in Istanbul. In the face of an increasing food crisis inside Syria, engendered partly by the government’s control of access for humanitarian organizations, SNC leaders set conditions for negotiations that include establishing safe corridors for humanitarian aid delivery and the release of women and children from government controlled jails.

The coalition’s statement dropped its previous demand for a guarantee that President Bashar al-Assad and certain of his allies would have no role in a transitional government or in Syria’s future, a condition the government has consistently opposed.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry characterized the coalition’s announcement as encouraging, but according to unnamed coalition members, American and British diplomats have heavily pressured rebel leaders to take part in the process. The coalition remained in Istanbul for an unscheduled third day of meetings, leaving room for a further diplomatic negotiations.

President of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) Ahmad Jarba (center) attends a meeting on November 9, 2013 in Istanbul. (Photo: AFP)

The fractious nature of Syria’s opposition groups remains among the hurdles to attempting a settlement of the civil war either through peace talks or on the battle field. Groups outside the country, such as the SNC, do not have direct control over or represent armed fighters on the ground. Two weeks ago, one leading rebel organization said anyone who attended peace talks that did not result in an end to Assad’s rule should be charged with treason, and reports last week suggest the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) appear to be attacking other opposition groups near the coastal province of Latakia.

Even without a date set for peace talks to begin, U.S., Russian, and UN diplomats continue to express hope for a political settlement. But in recent weeks, forces loyal to Assad have continued to gain ground. Rebels say government forces, assisted by foreign fighters such as Hezbollah, advanced on the northern city of Aleppo over the weekend.The government’s momentum – and its unwillingness thus far to discuss safe corridors for aid to civilians in rebel-held territory – make it unlikely that peace talks will begin any time soon.