BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria’s centrist internal opposition group, which rejects the armed insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad, said on Thursday that it will not attend peace talks in Switzerland next week, in a setback for the negotiations.
Khaled Dahowd, an executive member of the National Coordination Body (NCB), accused Russia and the United States of rushing the conference to promote their own interests in the region, rather than those of the Syrian people.
The NCB has tense relations with the main umbrella opposition body in exile, known as the National Coalition, which is rife with internal divisions and will only decide whether it will send representatives at a meeting on January 17.
The peace talks are set to start in Montreux on January 22.
“There will be four days between the (National) Coalition’s decision to attend Geneva and the start of the conference. How can we create a unified delegation with a unified democratic platform four days before an international conference?” Dahowd asked.
“Under these conditions we will not attend ... The Geneva conference as planned now will fail.”
Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy to Syria, said in a statement he deeply regretted but respected the NCB’s decision.
The NCB, which is based in Damascus and tolerated by Assad, is viewed with suspicion by many groups in the National Coalition, who see it as a front for Assad.
It is hard to gauge the extent of popular support for any of Syria’s political groups amid the chaos of the country’s nearly 3-year conflict.
The NCB has rejected the armed insurgency and has long called for a negotiated settlement, which it argues should not hinge on Assad’s role but should focus on setting up democracy.
The National Coalition says Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for over four decades, should have no part in the transitional government that is the stated aim of Geneva 2.
Syria’s uprising began as peaceful protests but transformed into a violent uprising as Assad’s forces cracked down on demonstrations.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in what has now become a civil war whose unrest regularly spills across Syria’s borders and has revived regional branches of al Qaeda.
The United States, which backs the opposition, and Russia, Assad’s main arms supplier, have pushed Syria’s warring parties to meet at the talks under the auspices of the United Nations.
Dahowd argued the two world powers were forcing the conference now to increase their own regional influence, not to help Syrians reach a final political settlement.
“(U.S. ambassador) Robert Ford knows this conference is going to fail but that is what he wants because it will probably degrade Syria further and will allow Washington to get more power over the outcome when the real deal comes,” Dahowd said, speaking by telephone.
“And Russia is also happy with this set up, because they think that in the meantime Assad will be gaining more power and territory. They are both delaying a real solution.”
The NCB said it was reaching out to other Syrian opposition groups, including some armed forces, to launch its own talks.
At least two leading members of the NCB are currently imprisoned by Assad’s forces, like many of the president’s opponents in Syria. Dahowd said Russia should have required Assad to release such figures, as well as females and minors, before talks could begin.
“Otherwise the talks will be over releasing prisoners and getting humanitarian aid, and not over creating a transition to democracy,” Dahowd said.
Dahowd, who is based in London, said that the opposition should have had a month to prepare after attendance was agreed.
Reporting by Erika Solomon