CORDOBA, Spain (Reuters) — Disparate
Syrian opposition groups, including several Islamist rebel
representatives, met for the first time in the Spanish city of Cordoba
to seek common ground ahead of peace talks with President Bashar
al-Assad's government later this month.
After nearly three years of conflict the opposition has fractured
into competing groups with different regional backers and the West
is pushing to gather a unified body of opposition members to attend
negotiations on January 22, dubbed "Geneva 2".
Prospects for progress at the talks in Switzerland appear dim.
Assad, buttressed by recent military gains and a wave of rebel
infighting, has flatly ruled out demands from the weakened
opposition that he stand aside.
The two-day meeting in Spain brings together members of the
Western-backed National Coalition but also delegates from opposition
groups inside Syria that are tolerated by Assad as they do not call
for his removal — and are therefore distrusted by many exiled
"Most colors from Syria are represented here. There is even one
person from Syrian security who supports Assad," said veteran
dissident Kamal Labwani.
At least three members of the Islamic Front had also come, he said.
The front is made up of several Islamist brigades which represent a
large portion of fighters on the ground and reject the authority of
the National Coalition.
"We want them to be here. We will listen to them," Labwani said.
Differences between the delegates were too deep to bridge at the
meeting, he added, but it would aim to create a dialogue among them.
Diplomats say the gathering is recognition that the divided National
Coalition — which has yet to formally accept an invitation to attend
Geneva 2 — is losing influence on the ground and a more
comprehensive grouping is needed ahead of the talks.
Rebels from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army were also at the
meeting in Cordoba, a venue chosen by the Spanish government because
of its historical importance as the capital of the Islamic caliphate
during the Middle Ages.
Organizers said they did not have a complete list of attendees and
some unexpected delegates had turned up.
A representative from Liwa al-Islam, a brigade that works with the
Islamic Front, told Reuters he was attending the meeting but gave no
further details of his role.
Opposition figure Fawaz Tello, one of the meeting's Organizers, said
Cordoba was prepared three months ago to encompass the "whole
spectrum of the Syrian opposition. To sit together and define a
"This is not for the election of another leadership or to decide the
delegates for Geneva," he said.
Assad's forces have recently been gaining ground against rebel
fighters backed by the opposition and he faces little pressure to
make concessions. At the same time, radical Islamists distrusted by
the West have taken a bigger role in the campaign to oust Assad.
"We are gathered here today despite our different views to try and
reach a consensus that can save our people," Sheikh Mohammed
al-Yacoubi, an opposition Muslim cleric, said at the start of the
meeting, which will last until Friday evening.
Syria was plunged into civil war after an uprising against four
decades of Assad family rule erupted in March 2011 and descended
into an armed insurgency after the army cracked down on protests.
More than 100,000 people have been killed, more than 2 million
refugees have fled abroad and another 6.5 million are displaced
The opposition wants the talks in Switzerland to create a
transitional authority for Syria in which Assad plays no role, but
his government says it will not surrender power and that the
president will remain in control.
Geneva 2 has been plagued by delays and sticking points, such as the
role for Iran, Assad's main backer. The United States does not want
Tehran to participate directly at Geneva 2, suggesting it might have
a role on the sidelines.
Earlier this month the Syrian National Council, of which some
members are also part of the National Coalition, said it would not
attend Geneva 2, blaming world powers for not doing enough to force
Assad to cede power.
(Reporting by Oliver Holmes; editing by Giles Elgood)