Syrian Opposition Council Signals Willingness to Talk

Despite the group’s overtures, negotiations are unlikely to take place, let alone succeed.

Nabil Elaraby, secretary general of the Arab League, and Hillary Clinton, the American secretary of state, during a meeting of the Friends of Syria summit in New York, September 28
Nabil Elaraby, secretary general of the Arab League, and Hillary Clinton, the American secretary of state, during a meeting of the Friends of Syria summit in New York, September 28 (France Diplomatie/Martin Loper)

In what is seen as a surprising move on the part of the Syrian political opposition, the leadership of the Syrian National Council has indicated that the bloc is open to negotiations with members of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The only stipulation, according to the council’s president Abdulbaset Sieda, is that those officials must be free and clear of the massive human rights violations that are taking place inside the country today. Assad himself is still off limits, as are his generals who are directing the military crackdown against the uprising. Yet there are others, such as Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, who the opposition are willing to talk with.

The announcement comes as the Syrian army has launched a new offensive on Free Syrian Army positions in the rebel bastion of Homs and the contested city of Aleppo, the country’s largest and a place where establishing control is significant for both government and opposition forces.

Last night, two suicide bombings severely damaged an Air Force intelligence compound in a suburb of Damascus, killing a number of loyalist soldiers and possibly injuring prisoners that were picked up during the revolution and held in the facility.

Over 140 people were reported to have died in bombings, shelling and shootings on Tuesday but that figure is now relatively common in Syria’s eighteen month civil war.

With reel army units taking a pounding over the past week as a result of the renewed government offensive, it appears that Abdulbaset Sieda is quickly coming to the conclusion that too many civilians are being killed while the negotiation process stalls. Every Arab League and United Nations initiative to cease the fighting and promote preliminary discussions between regime and opposition representatives has been broken.

Kofi Annan, the United Nations’ point man for potential peace talks, resigned in a tirade of frustration, unable to complete a job that he said was hogtied by bickering in the Security Council and an unwillingness by the parties to stop the shooting. The man who took Annan’s place, Lakhdar Brahimi, is not having much luck either, unable to even draw a plan of his own outside of the Annan’s framework.

In other words, achieving a lull in the violence has eluded everyone, which is only contributing to the bloodshed. This is why Sieda’s newfound openness to talking with the regime is unlikely to gain much traction. While the Syrian National Council is the largest anti-Assad coalition in the game right now, it has lost a considerable amount of credibility due to its disorganization and inability to win the confidence that it needs from the international community. The various rebel brigades that are battling Assad’s forces are likely to take Sieda’s words as either a sign of weakness or as a boost to the president’s message that the Syrian army is slowly but surely winning the conflict.

Unless Farouk al-Sharaa is willing to risk his life by starting a secret, direct and independent diplomatic channel with the council, the prospect of the Assad regime entering negotiations seems exceedingly remote. At present, both sides are simply too invested in winning through arms, attrition and a strategy of total war.