Archive for December 3rd, 2013

Syrian opposition splintered ahead of peace talks

December 02, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Within minutes of opening a Twitter account this past week, the leader of Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group received an onslaught of criticism.

“Welcome to Twitter Mr. Western Puppet,” one comment to Ahmad al-Jarba read. Others called him a Saudi stooge and scorned the opposition’s perceived ineffectiveness. The comments reflect the deep disillusionment and distrust that many Syrians have come to feel toward the Syrian National Coalition, Syria’s main opposition group in exile. They also underline the predicament of who will represent the Syrian opposition at an upcoming peace conference in Geneva marking the first face-to-face meeting between Syria’s warring sides.

The Geneva talks have raised the possibility of a negotiated end to a conflict activists say has killed more than 120,000 people. But with a fractured opposition, many have little hope for strong negotiations with emissaries of President Bashar Assad.

“Each of them represents himself and maybe his wife,” said an anti-government activist in the central Homs province, who uses the pseudonym Abul Hoda. “Nobody here pays any attention to what they say.”

The Syrian National Coalition is seen by many as a disparate group of out-of-touch exiles with inflated egos and non-Syrian allegiances. Syrians often deride it as the “five-star-hotel opposition” for spending more time meeting in luxury hotels than being on the ground in Syria.

Damascus-based opposition groups call members of the coalition traitors for demanding U.S. military airstrikes against Syria following a chemical weapons attack in August that killed hundreds. But groups known as the “internal opposition” are themselves seen as aging and submissive to Assad’s government, incapable of playing an effective opposition role for fear of arrest.

More importantly, the rebel factions that hold the real power on the ground won’t go to Geneva. Some of the most powerful Islamic brigades have distanced themselves from the coalition. Meanwhile, rebels are losing ground to a crushing government military offensive.

“Given the lack of unity amongst the opposition, the West and regional allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia will struggle to establish a representative negotiation partner that is willing to engage with the Syrian government,” said Torbjorn Soltvedt, a senior analyst at the British risk analysis firm Maplecroft.

He added that negotiations likely will prove futile until there is a significant shift in the balance of power on the ground. “As such, the Syrian conflict is still likely to be decided on the battlefield,” he said.

The Syrian foreign ministry said this week that it will send a high-level delegation to the talks with clear directives from Assad. Although it hasn’t said who will be going, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem is expected to head the delegation.

It is much less clear who from the opposition side will be at the talks. Their deep splits will make it extremely difficult to select a unified opposition delegation. Western leaders have made clear they expect the coalition to be the chief negotiator on the opposition side at the conference, set for Jan. 22. The group has called on others to participate in a delegation under its command.

“The coalition will form the whole opposition delegation and it will lead this delegation. This is not up for discussion,” senior coalition member Ahmad Ramadan said. “The coalition is the only side responsible for that.”

The U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has said that the coalition will play a very important role in forming the delegation. “But I have always said that the delegation has to be credible and representative, as representative as possible,” he said in Geneva last month.

Hassan Abdul-Azim, a veteran opposition figure in Syria who leads the Syria-based National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, said his group was ready to go to Geneva with a unified delegation made up of internal and external opposition group. But he said the coalition rejected the idea because it considers itself the only legitimate representative.

Many smaller opposition groups, including Kurdish parties, have not decided whether they will go and who will represent them. The coalition has said it will meet in Istanbul in mid-December to discuss the makeup of the delegation. But members of the group itself are split on the whole concept of a peace conference. Some of its senior members insist that Assad should step down and stand trial before any talks.

“In Europe, a train crash leads to government resignation. What about destroying half of Syria, displacing half its people and the killing and maiming of a million people?” asked opposition figure Kamal Labwani. “I am totally opposed to the Geneva conference.”

Many believe the talks — if they go ahead — will be pointless, particularly now that Assad’s forces have the upper hand in the fighting on the ground. The talks aim to establish a transitional government that would take over the country. But the opposition insists Assad must step aside, as the government says that’s out of the question.

Gen. Salim Idris, the commander of the coalition’s military wing known as the Free Syrian Army, said his faction will not take part in the talks and will not stop fighting until Assad is brought down by force. Meanwhile, frustration in the opposition remains clear, as it does in Twitter messages mocking Jarba’s username “PresidentJarba.”

“I find it disturbing you are calling yourself president already,” one read. Another read: “100,000 Syrians martyrs and you … still issue ‘warnings.’ No wonder … Assad is still standing.”

Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed to this report.

Israel’s new opposition chief meets with Abbas

December 01, 2013

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Israel’s new opposition leader told the Palestinian president Sunday that most Israelis support a peace deal with the Palestinians and that his Labor Party will back any future agreement.

Isaac Herzog met with President Mahmoud Abbas just 10 days after being elected Labor leader, replacing a party chief who had made domestic issues such as economic inequality a chief concern. Sunday’s talks at Abbas’ headquarters in the West Bank signaled a shift back to Labor’s traditional priorities. Two decades ago, the party led Israel into negotiations on the terms of a Palestinian state.

The collapse of the first major attempt to reach a final peace deal in 2000 contributed to Labor’s political decline. Since then, the party either served as a junior partner in coalition governments or in the opposition. It’s currently in the opposition, with 15 seats in the 120-member Israeli parliament.

Israeli-Palestinian negotiations resumed in July, but there has been no sign of progress. With only five more months set aside for talks, tensions are high over Israel’s continued settlement building on war-won lands the Palestinians seek for their state. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition announced plans for thousands more settlement apartments in recent months, drawing angry Palestinian complaints that Israel is showing bad faith and pre-empting the outcome of talks.

Despite the prevailing pessimism, Herzog said he believes both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are serious about negotiations. “I was very impressed by the willingness of the president (Abbas) to move toward an agreement … and I will deliver this message to the prime minister (Netanyahu) who I know is also committed to the idea of moving toward an agreement,” said Herzog.

Herzog said he believes a “clear majority” of Israelis support a peace deal and that Labor will provide a parliamentary safety net for Netanyahu if he reaches such an agreement. Pro-settler legislators are influential in Netanyahu’s coalition and in his own Likud Party and are expected to oppose any deal involving a withdrawal from much of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in 1967. Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip — also captured in 1967 and sought for a Palestinian state — in 2005 but continues to restrict access to the territory.

In other developments Sunday, Gaza’s ruling Hamas announced that it has canceled an annual rally marking its founding, saying it is inappropriate to celebrate at a time of growing economic hardship. It was the first time the Islamic militant group has canceled the festivities since seizing Gaza in 2007. Hamas has used the elaborate annual commemoration of its December 1987 founding to demonstrate its control, with large military-style gatherings attended by hundreds of thousands of people.

The decision illustrated just how hard Gaza’s economy has been hit since Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, the main foreign patron of Hamas, was ousted in a July military coup. Morsi hails from the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood group, of which Hamas is an offshoot.

The Egyptian military has imposed tough border restrictions, including the destruction of smuggling tunnels that long sustained the Gaza economy and provided a key source of income for Hamas.