As Syrian opposition leaders prepare to negotiate for the first time with President Bashar al-Assad, they’ve gone back to school to learn how to do it.
Doctors, dentists and academics among leaders of the Western-backed opposition will go up against an Assad team with decades of experience in diplomacy at the talks scheduled in Switzerland next month.
Their international supporters have helped to arrange training to close that gap. Monzer Akbik, a 48-year-old engineer who’s chief of staff for the Syrian National Coalition, said he took a five-day course at a location he was asked not to disclose.
“It was basically about how to reach a win-win situation,” said Akbik of his training, which included an exercise that simulated a commercial deal. Participants learned that “what’s sustainable is to try to achieve the interest behind the position, not necessarily to stick to the same position,” he said. “It opened our eyes about academic information that you didn’t know before.”
Since early in a civil war that’s lasted almost three years, rebel leaders vowed they wouldn’t talk to Assad and would drive him from power instead. The about-face that’s set them studying for a peace conference in Montreux -- moved from Geneva because watchmakers had booked its hotel rooms for a trade fair -- follows shifts in the regional balance that have undermined opposition hopes of a military victory.
The U.S. backed away in September from proposed military strikes against Assad, and instead joined Russia in reaching an accord for his government to destroy chemical weapons. The same two countries have taken the lead in pushing the peace talks. Russia, an Assad ally, is ready to talk to the Free Syrian Army, linked to the opposition coalition, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said.
“There’s a bit of momentum after the chemical weapons deal, which shows that when the U.S. and Russia agree on something it’s possible that things happen,” said Paul Salem, vice president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
Also strengthening the case for negotiations are the rising influence of al-Qaeda-linked Islamist groups in Syria, the scale of the humanitarian crisis, and the prospect of help from Iranian leaders seeking to improve ties with the West, he said.
For the opposition leaders, that means more homework. Another course was offered earlier this month to 19 coalition members at Clingendael Academy in The Hague, which has trained diplomats for 20 years.
“You clearly sensed that they never had worked, maybe with one exception, in an official function in diplomacy,” said Ron Ton, the academy’s director.
He said exercises designed for the course deliberately didn’t refer to Syria’s situation. “It was a training program, it was facilitating their skills,” Ton said. “Their strategy for Geneva, that’s their business.”
Deciding that strategy is made harder by the opposition’s fragmentation. There are more than 1,000 groups, according to Western estimates. Most won’t be in Montreux, including Islamist groups that play a growing role in the fighting. There are signs that their success on the battlefield has made the U.S. less eager to topple Assad, while U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia have signaled they may shift support from the Western-backed groups because they’re ineffective.
The Syrian war has left more than 125,000 dead, according to activists. It’s portrayed as a fight against terrorism by Assad’s government, and an uprising against his rule by the opposition.
Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad told Syria’s state-run television that the priority of the conference should be “reaching a consensus on putting an end to terrorism,” state-run SANA news agency said.
Badr Jamous, secretary-general of the opposition coalition, said he learned from the training in Holland and has come round to the idea of negotiations. “A person will have to talk to the enemy if he wants to end the plight of his people,” he said.
There’s no reason for Syrians to expect their plight to end after Montreux, said Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Center in Beirut.
“The two sides simply aren’t ready for that,” and the opposition has more homework to do, said Sayigh, who was a negotiator in the Palestinian delegation during peace talks with Israel in the 1990s.
“Technical negotiating skills are no more useful, effective or powerful than the concrete proposals brought to the table,” he said. “This is an opposition that has shown itself unable to develop a political program so far.”