What Would It Take To Get Syrian Opposition To Peace Talks?

Syria's Western-backed opposition leaders still have not agreed to attend peace talks planned in Geneva next month. Steve Inskeep talks with Dr. Najib Ghadbian, the special representative to the United States for the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition political group, about what would get them to the table.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's talk next about Syria, where inspectors report progress in dismantling a chemical weapons program.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Two huge issues remain. Secretary of State John Kerry told Renee Montagne last week he's hoping the chemical weapons are loaded on a ship. But as of now, it's not clear where the ship would go. Norway has turned down a U.S. request to take in the weapons.

INSKEEP: The even bigger issue is that Syria's civil war continues. The U.S. and other nations are trying to sponsor peace talks next month in Geneva. But the main opposition political group, the Syrian National Coalition, has not agreed to take part. We spoke with Najib Ghadbian, the group's special representative to the United States. What is it that you want?

NAJIB GHADBIAN: Well, we want a political solution but a political solution which would achieve the aspirations of the Syrian people, and that is a transition to democracy. And I think without a peace that would address some of the immediate concerns, like lifting the siege from the two million people in the suburb of Damascus, like releasing women and children prisoners - I mean it doesn't really doesn't mean, you know, anything to them. So that's why we're putting those issues as kind of conditions that could make that, you know, Geneva II more successful.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute - when you say lifting the siege on citizens in Damascus, you're talking about suburbs of Damascus that have been rebel held or partially rebel held and they're now under attack. You're essentially saying that there must kind of ceasefire or even Syrian government withdrawal before you'll begin any peace talks.

GHADBIAN: The least access to these areas, humanitarian access, which in fact we have been demanding, we felt that after the chemical deal, at least the security council was able to agree on a presidential statement, not even a Security Council resolution, which would encourage the government to allow that humanitarian access - and Russia, of course, signed into it. So we will count that. We want to build on that. We want to implement that immediately. I mean, people in the suburbs of Damascus are eating leaves. There was this religious fatwa, you know, saying they could eat cat. I mean it's extremely, extremely difficult circumstances. It's two million people. This is unacceptable.

INSKEEP: But let's be brutally honest about how you would try to change that. It seems to me there are two ways: you can defeat Assad's forces on the battlefield, which rebels don't seem to be able to do at this time, or you can talk.

GHADBIAN: You need to do both. I mean this revolution started peaceful and we wanted it peaceful. And for six, seven months it was peaceful but the killing never stopped for a day, Steve. That's why we believe, you know, in an enforced, negotiated settlement. And that's why we welcome the idea of the strike after the use of chemical weapons because it could have in fact led to the regime to think seriously about they must accept a political solution.

INSKEEP: If you refuse to talk, do you let Bashar al-Assad off the hook? He doesn't have to deal with you. He can keep fighting with the rebel forces on the ground.

GHADBIAN: Well, this is what we don't want to happen, and that's why we supported every political initiative to end the killing, and number two, to put the country on the path of a democratic transition. What's important to us in the Geneva II is to make sure this is about implementing the Geneva communique that is to create a transitional government with full executive authorities, including military security - those are the presidential powers. And to us that's kind of really what's acceptable. Less than that, no Syrian will support that after, you know, 120,000 killed, the million displaced and so on and so forth. And we have to, you know, be close to the demands of those Syrians on the ground; otherwise we can lose credibility. We don't represent anyone.

INSKEEP: When we last talked, a number of rebel groups had made a point of saying that your organization doesn't represent them. Since we talked, more rebel groups have made a point of saying that your organization doesn't represent them. Are you still confident that you represent the preponderance of rebel groups on the ground?

GHADBIAN: We are talking to a lot of these groups and we want to have a unified position. And we want these groups, in fact, to embrace our position as we go to Geneva. Because it is important if we make any commitment at Geneva that we would be able to implement it. That's why we're telling our friends to give us the time in order to engage these groups and present that understanding. 'Cause a lot of them were concerned that after the chemical deal that Assad was giving more time, Assad was, you know, presented as responsible. And that's not acceptable. So the friends say no, he has no place in the process, I think then they're able to support our position.

INSKEEP: Najib Ghadbian. Thank you very much.

GHADBIAN: Thank you for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: He is the special representative to the United States for the Syrian National Coalition.

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