Syria opposition under pressure to accept Assad for now

Geneva (AFP) – Syrian opposition negotiators in Geneva receive a steady stream of visitors, all bearing the same request: freeze the demand that President Bashar al-Assad resign as a precondition for a peace deal.

With an eighth round of UN-backed peace talks dragging on, the opposition is in a tight spot.

They insist Assad cannot be part of Syria’s longterm future but are being pushed to recognise realities on the ground, where the regime has the upper hand.

“Most of the diplomats that have visited the delegation have repeated the same call,” an opposition delegate told AFP, requesting anonymity.

“You have to be realistic if you want to solve the conflict,” he described diplomats as telling the opposition.

“They want us to freeze the demand that Assad step down, but not abandon it completely.”

– New tactic –

Syria’s opposition was pressured ahead of the talks to form a united delegation for the first time, which it agreed at talks in Riyadh.

But the unified delegation has reiterated the need for Assad to go as part of the solution to a nearly seven-year war that has killed over 340,000 people.

Western envoys have argued that suspending the Assad demand would embarrass the government into entering substantive negotiations, according to the opposition.

Seven previous rounds of talks have gone nowhere — and rival sides have not yet met face-to-face.

The current round, which began last week, remains deadlocked.

The government, outraged over the opposition’s intransigence on the Assad question, went back to Damascus but has agreed to return to Geneva next week.

Some in the opposition say flexibility on Assad’s fate is not a viable option to break the stalemate.

– No leverage –

“There are growing numbers who are pressing for us to pursue this option, but the representatives of the military factions and some of the political representatives are absolutely opposed,” an opposition source told AFP.

Among them is Mohammed Alloush, an opposition delegate and leader of the Army of Islam rebel group.

“Our position has consistently been that Assad must go at the beginning of the transitional period,” he told AFP.

“If anyone is retreating from that position, they only represent themselves,” he added.

According to UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, Assad’s future has not yet been discussed.

Last week, he published 12 principles for a future Syria that he said both sides could agree, including that the country “shall be democratic and non-sectarian”.

De Mistura wants “to start the conversation…

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