By Yazin al-Saadi
(Al-Akhbar): The Geneva II conference, set to take place on January 22, is billed as a historic moment for Syrians to come together and put an end to a devastating conflict. But as the date draws closer, it seems key Syrian voices are being brushed aside.
One such voice, who struggled for months to encourage a political dialogue, was Haytham Manna, the head of the Syrian National Coordinating Body (NCB). Manna’s NCB is a major internal opposition bloc consisting of 13 left-wing political parties and independent and youth activists, and has been consistently ignored as a legitimate voice.
“We want the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) to go and be successful in the negotiations, but how are they able to do so when they barely have any influence on the ground?” Manna told Al-Akhbar.
“The first thing the regime will say in Geneva to the SNC is: Who do you represent? And sadly, the regime has a point,” he added.
The NCB is currently in a major dispute with the SNC – a coalition of Syrian opposition factions based outside the country – over a range of issues regarding the Syrian uprising, from its militarization to foreign intervention, and most recently, which of the two oppositional bodies actually represents the sentiments of Syrians struggling against the regime.
It’s clear to many that the conference has transformed from a space for Syrians to voice a shared solution, into a platform for great powers to advance their interests.
Who Represents the Syrian Opposition?
The desire for Geneva II to act as a means to a comprehensive solution to the conflict is ubiquitous amongst Syrians. In the months leading up to the conference, the violence continues relentlessly from all sides, and like the chaos raging on the military and humanitarian levels, the politics are equally dismal.
A total of 34 states, as well as four international organizations, have been formally invited to attend the conference, each representing a side in the conflict.
The Syrian regime formally announced it would participate in talks without preconditions in the fall of 2013. Last week, a leaked document listed the members of the regime delegation, headed by Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.
On the other side of the negotiating table, the situation is far messier.
Most Syrian opposition groups are divided along ideological or tactical lines, while most Syrians differ over the nature of the ‘real’ opposition and who can adequately represent anti-regime Syrians at the negotiating table.
The complications are exasperated by the fact the UN and world powers are demanding an absolutist position, wherein participants can either support or oppose the regime, leaving no space for a third independent position.
For Manna and the NCB, this was a red line.
“[US Ambassador] Robert Ford – the Paul Bremer of Syria – and the other so-called ‘Friends of Syria,’ which is composed of Syria’s enemies, ultimately say who can be elected and what can be decided,” Manna said, “and the [SNC] officials will be named not out of merit. They will be hand-picked based on loyalty to other interests.”
The NCB were at first supportive of Geneva II. In fact, as Manna noted, the NCB has been actively calling for a political solution since the first year of the uprising.
But on January 15, the NCB stated it would not join the conference, since there was a lack of “a balanced and persuasive representative of the opposition.”
“What is happening is a violation of the Geneva I communique,” Manna said, “because [the communique] stressed that there should be the presence of a unified, balanced opposition.”
Moreover, the NCB head added, “The Russians are working with the Americans, ensuring that the war in Syria is transformed to a war on Syria. [The United States, Russia, and others] are saying they want a solution today, and we know they are all liars. They want to kill this [political solution], and we simply cannot accept that,” he said.
“Why would we pay the price for the sake of the interests of others?” he asked.
The Kurdish Voice: The ‘Third Power’
As slurs are flung between Syrian opposition groups, Syria’s Kurds have been mobilizing amongst themselves beyond Geneva II’s spotlight.
The Kurds amount to around nine percent of Syria’s total population of 24 million, making it the largest non-Arab minority in the country.
Recently, various Syrian Kurdish parties, such as the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Kurdish National Council (KNC), met in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil under the auspices of Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, to hash out a stance on Geneva II.
“We negotiated for days on Kurdish politics and Geneva II, in particular. We decided that we wanted to have a unified Kurdish position, independent from other opposition groups,” Rustum Joudi, a PYD representative, told Al-Akhbar.
“Sadly, the Americans, the Turks, and the Gulf countries refused to deal with the Kurdish issue in Geneva II, and because of this [the PYD] are against the conference,” he said.
Joudi said external parties pressured other opposition groups to fall under the umbrella of the SNC in the negotiations, but the PYD refused. “How can I stand by the [SNC] when it does not recognize my existence?” he argued.
However, unlike the PYD, the KNC opted to participate under SNC’s umbrella, a decision that could crack attempts for a unified Kurdish voice in the negotiations.
Like Manna, Joudi blamed both Russia and America as directly responsible for and the persistence of the conflict in Syria.
“If they were serious about Geneva II, they would allow all parts of Syrian society to participate. The people they have do not have any influence or back Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and Jabhat al-Nusra,” he said.
“The Kurds today represent a third power. We are not with the regime or the armed opposition. We see ourselves as the third way pushing for democracy and a peaceful solution,” Joudi said.
The Other 80 Percent
Syrian women have been impacted by the composition of Geneva II. On January 13, a delegation of 50 Syrian women demanded their voices be hears at Geneva II since women and children make up “no less than 80 percent” of Syria’s displaced people.
“Without a doubt, the competing great powers, the United States and Russia and their allies, seem essential for a solution, unfortunately. We, as a women’s group, are trying to monitor the negotiations so that Syrians will have some hand in the results,” Keffah Ali Deeb, one of the four elected representatives of the conference, told Al-Akhbar.
The women’s group initially sought to play an active role in the negotiating process, but according to Deeb, Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN’s special envoy to Syria, was adamant that “there could not be a third party on the table.”
“We did not accept this argument entirely,” she noted. “However, we want to have a solution, so we had to compromise for the sake of peace and the Syrian people.” The organization will be allowed to monitor the proceedings from the sidelines, and the UN will present its recommendationsfor the negotiating parties to discuss.
Unlike Manna and Joudi, Deeb was more hopeful of the potentialities that Geneva II presented. She said:
“ You have to keep on trying. If we were to say there is no hope, then we would have all stayed home. But as long as we have an issue that demands a solution, and it concerns us and we are part of it, in one way or another, therefore we should always have hope. And if we fail, we have to try again.”