BEIRUT — Syrian grassroots activists threatened Wednesday to cut ties with the main exile-based opposition group after it got bogged down in a week of internal power struggles instead of devising a strategy for possible peace talks with President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Such talks are to be launched with a U.N.-sponsored international conference in Geneva, tentatively set for next month, though there’s no firm date, no agenda and no list of participants.
The latest signs of disarray in the notoriously fractured Syrian opposition raised more troubling questions about the Geneva conference, including who would represent those trying to bring down Assad and what mandate would they have.
A further sticking point arose Wednesday, with Iran, an Assad ally, seemingly angling for an invitation. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said that his government “supports Geneva talks and U.N. efforts.”
However, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the West fears that an Iranian presence would be counterproductive, and that Tehran would try to leverage the Syria crisis to win international acquiescence in its suspected nuclear weapons program.
“As far as we’re concerned, our fear is that there would be a merging of the Syrian problem and the Iranian nuclear problem,” Fabius told Radio France. “We fear that if they (the Iranians) are present at the conference on Syria, that they could cause delays in a way that a blackmailing situation would arise in which case perhaps they’ll say they’ll allow a resolution in the Syrian crisis but on condition that we allow them to make nuclear weapons.”
Iran insists its nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes.
The Syrian regime has said it agrees in principle to attend the Geneva talks, but has not said on what terms.
However, the gaps between Assad and his opponents on Syria’s political future remain wide. Assad has said he will remain in office until elections are held in Syria, while the political opposition says his departure from power must top the agenda of any peace talks.
The main political opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, began meetings a week ago in Istanbul, Turkey, to expand its decision-making bodies, choose a new leader and devise a joint position on the Geneva talks.
Instead, the group has spent most of that time on the membership issues, with rivalries between Qatar and Saudi Arabia over influence apparently playing out in the background.
On Wednesday, the Revolutionary Movement in Syria, an umbrella organization of activist groups from across the country, issued what it called a final warning, threatening to withdraw its backing for the coalition if it doesn’t come up with a political strategy.
“We have waited in vain for many months for the National Coalition to take concrete steps, and offered its leadership multiple chances to do so,” the activists said in a statement. “The reality is that there is no doubt that the … leadership has failed to fulfill its responsibility to represent the great Syrian people’s revolution at the organizational, political, and humanitarian levels.”
The loss of support would have little practical effect, but would deal another symbolic blow to Syria’s main opposition group, which has long been accused of being out of touch with those on the ground in Syria.
Even if the opposition were to unite around a single position, peace talks face a host of obstacles.
Analyst Shadi Hamid said that while the Syrian opposition wants assurances of Assad’s speedy departure as a condition for talks, “this is not the assumption the Russians are going in with.”
And even if the Geneva talks are launched, it’s not clear how any agreements would be enforced on the ground, he said. Many rebels don’t see the coalition as their representative and would likely not feel bound by its decisions.
“There are lots of reasons to be skeptical about Geneva,” Hamid said.
Though seen as a long shot, the Geneva talks are the international community’s only plan at the moment for ending the conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people and displaced more than 5 million since it erupted in March 2011.
In other developments, the Syrian opposition urged the European Union to quickly supply rebel fighters with weapons, after the 27-country bloc decided earlier this week to let its arms embargo against Syria expire.
The decision paved the way for individual countries to send weapons to Assad’s outgunned opponents. However, the EU’s move may have little impact on the conflict since no single European country is expected to send lethal weapons to the rebels anytime soon.
Britain and France, the main military powers in the EU, had pushed for lifting the embargo. They have argued that Europe’s threat of arming the rebels in the future would force Assad to negotiate in good faith. Critics have warned that with both sides still convinced they can win militarily, such a strategy could quickly backfire,
The French foreign minister said Wednesday that lifting the embargo doesn’t mean immediate weapons shipments. “But it’s an option if the situation demands to re-establish a better defensive balance,” Fabius said.
Russia, an Assad ally, harshly criticized Europe’s decision to allow the arming of Syrian rebels, saying it undercuts the Geneva conference. Moscow also renewed its pledge to supply Assad’s regime with advanced missiles, which could transform an already brutal conflict into an East-West proxy fight.
The Syrian rebels seek anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to challenge Assad’s tanks and warplanes.
However, Washington and many of its European allies have been reluctant to send sophisticated weapons, fearing they could end up in the hands of radical Islamic groups such as the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra that have emerged as the most effective and organized fighting force on the opposition’s side.