Middle East

Syrians place their faith in Geneva II talks

Members of the National Coalition attend a meeting on 9 November 2013 in Istanbul
Image caption The National Coalition voted in Istanbul to attend the proposed Geneva II talks

"A cry for the salvation of Syria" was the slogan of a recent conference held in a hotel in Istanbul by We Are All Syrians, an independent opposition movement comprising mainly religious minority groups.

The meeting discussed efforts to find a political solution to conflict in the country.

Tawfiq Dunia, a Syrian exile from President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite sect, was one of the organisers and believes the only way forward is for both the opposition and government to attend the so-called Geneva II peace talks proposed by the UN, US and Russia.

"I don't want to be represented as an Alawite. I am Syrian and people killed on both sides of the conflict are all Syrians too," he said.

People from all parts of Syria attended the meeting. You could recognise the accents of those from Aleppo, Damascus, Deraa, Latakia, Raqqa and Suweida, each of them with different religious and social backgrounds.

However, they all agreed on the importance of ending the bloodshed and building a united Syria.

"We are here as part of Syria's mosaic - as nationalists who want to find a national solution," Mr Dunia explained.

If the Geneva talks do not take place, "the country will go to Hell", he added, reflecting the opinion of almost everyone at the meeting.

Guarantees sought

Earlier this week, members of the main opposition alliance, the National Coalition, voted at a separate meeting in Istanbul to attend Geneva II, provided certain conditions were met.

The coalition's president, Ahmed Jarba, told the BBC that they wanted to end Syrians' suffering.

"We consider Geneva II a resumption of the Geneva I and London meetings [in June 2012 and October 2013], at which the international community called for the establishment of a transitional national unity government with full executive powers," he said.

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Media captionThe leader of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmad Jarba: ''We aspire to a democracy like that in the West''

The Geneva I communique, which has been endorsed by the UN Security Council, calls for an immediate cessation of violence and the establishment of a "transitional governing body with full executive powers that could include members of the government and opposition, and should be formed on the basis of mutual consent".

Mr Jarba's view on Geneva II is held by some of the armed rebel brigades fighting in Syria.

Col Qassem Saad al-Din, the spokesman for the Western-backed Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, said it supported the proposed talks, so long as any outcome was in line with the communiques issued after Geneva I and London.

"We can't go without international guarantees that the government will abide by the results," he told the BBC.

There is concern within the international community that the two powerful jihadist groups affiliated to al-Qaeda - the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) - will refuse to accept any deal agreed at Geneva II.

But Mr Jarba was dismissive of their apparent threat to peace, saying: "They don't represent our revolution, they came from outside to steal our revolution. We don't represent them and they don't represent us. In fact, we are fighting them."

Assad strengthened

For the opposition, Syria's future does not include Mr Assad and those members of his regime who have "blood on their hands".

However, that view is not shared by the president and his supporters.

Mr Assad has said he is happy to be represented at Geneva II as long as there are no preconditions.

His Information Minister, Omran al-Zoubi, has also stressed that the government delegation will not be travelling to Geneva to hand over power.

Many analysts believe President Assad's position is stronger than last year and that he came out of the deal to rid Syria of its chemical weapons as a partner with the West, after being someone who they refused to deal with for nearly three years.

Those are also the beliefs held by Assad loyalists, many of whom reject the idea of talks with the opposition and want to fight until the uprising is quashed.

Desperate civilians

But the civilians caught up in the conflict are desperate for it to end.

Image caption Rebel groups have carried out several attacks in central Damascus

Since the threat of US military intervention following the deadly chemical attack outside Damascus in August receded, government forces have increased their use of conventional weapons in the capital and elsewhere in the country.

Rebel groups have similarly stepped up their attacks on central Damascus to put pressure on the regime.

"The city is raining with mortars," said one of the city's residents. "We have nowhere to escape to. Each day, we go about our lives not knowing if we will see the next."

Residents of central Damascus are now experiencing the violence that has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced more than 6.5 million others since March 2011.

The fear among many Syrians is that, without a political solution, the fighting will continue for years to come, with neither side able to achieve a decisive victory.

Interim administration

In preparation for Geneva II, the National Coalition has been making some significant changes to its structure, including the addition of representatives from the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the formation of an interim government, headed by Ahmed Tomeh.

"The government aims to provide services inside the liberated areas," Mr Jarba said.

Image caption The opposition has been divided over the approach to Geneva II

Many activists and opposition politicians saw this as a positive move, noting the voting process which led to the selection of ministers, including one from the Druze sect, and the coalition's determination to improve life in rebel-held parts of the country.

But others were more sceptical, including coalition member Walid al-Bunni, who said the formation of an interim government might hinder the Geneva II talks.

"If the Geneva talks are aiming at forming a transitional national unity government, why take such a step now?" he asked.

Mr Bunni was also concerned that the coalition was excluding opposition groups that are not part of it.

"We don't want to be another Baath Party, not including the others. And this is just a mirror of what we have revolted against," he added.