Indirect talks between the Syrian regime and Syrian opposition are scheduled to commence in Geneva on January 29, 2016. Ahead of these talks, the recently established High Negotiations Committee (HNC), which is charged with nominating the opposition's delegation to the talks and steering the talks on behalf of the opposition, has been heavily pressured to drop its preconditions for beginning the talks, such as ceasing the bombardment of civilians and lifting the siege from areas in Syria. The HNC is also under pressure to comply with Russian demands to change the makeup of the opposition delegation and allow the participation of oppositionists who are close to Russia and lenient in their positions vis-├á-vis the Syrian regime, such as Qadri Jamil and Haytham Manna'.
Most of the pressure on the HNC actually came from the U.S. - which had been expected to support the Syrian opposition and to counterbalance Russia's relentless backing of the Syrian regime. In January 23, 2016, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met in Riyadh with representatives of the HNC and of the opposition delegation. According to HNC members and according to many reports in the Arab media, at the meeting Kerry strongly pressured on the opposition to accept Russian dictates. HNC members said that Kerry, expressing "a scary retreat in the U.S. position," had threatened that if they did not comply with Russian dictates they would lose the support of their allies; he also clarified that their preconditions for the talks - such as sending in humanitarian aid and lifting the siege from Syrian cities - would be discussed in the talks themselves. According to HNC members, Kerry told them that Assad had the right to run in the future Syrian elections, that UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura was entitled to intervene in the makeup of the opposition delegation, and that the talks would lead to the establishing of a national unity government. This contravenes the 2012 Geneva I Communique and effectively means leaving the Syrian regime in power.
Recent statements by HNC members, who spoke of a "positive atmosphere," indicate that, in spite of the HNC's sharp criticism of the retreat in the U.S. position, it will likely be compelled to accept the American dictates and allow the participation of additional opposition elements in the talks. Attending the talks will mean accepting the suggested agenda and dropping the precondition of stopping the bombardment of the civilian population and dispatching humanitarian aid.
This document reviews reports on pressures exerted by Kerry on the Syrian opposition and on the opposition's responses to this.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with High Negotiations Committee head Riad Hijab (image: Zamanalwsl.net, January 26, 2016)
HNC Spokesman: A 'Scary Retreat' In U.S. Position Has Brought It Closer Than Ever To Russia's, Iran's Positions
The spokesman of the HNC, Monzer Makhous, said after the January 23 meeting with Kerry that "there has been a scary retreat in the American position," and added: "Kerry told us today: You must go to Geneva on the terms that have been presented to you, otherwise you will lose the support of your friends and allies." According to Makhous, Kerry and Staffan de Mistura had said even earlier that they supported forming a national unity government, and had instructed the HNC not to speak of Assad's removal or establishing a transitional governing body with full powers. The meaning of this, said Makhous, is that they support Iran's plan and have completely renounced the Geneva I Communique. He added: "The American perception has grown closer to the Iranian-Syrian-Russian position that speaks of forming a national unity government." He noted, however, that the "European friends" took a completely different stance and had had emphasized that "Kerry's statements hold only for the U.S."
Another HNC spokesman, Riyadh Na'san Agha, said in a similar vein: "Kerry told us that Assad was entitled to participate in the elections, and that if we could, we would stop him from winning... Kerry's statements are illogical..." Agha described the American role as "destructive."
An unnamed official in the Syrian opposition told the London-based daily Al-'Arabi Al-Jadid that Kerry's meeting with the HNC representatives was "tragic and very bad," and added: "Kerry relayed clear messages that [originate with the] Russians and Iranians, and threatened that the opposition must obey them... He said that Geneva III would be [a round of] talks, rather than negotiations, and that they would lead to the establishment of a national unity government rather than a transitional governing body... Kerry told the HNC delegation that UN envoy de Mistura was entitled to intervene in the makeup of the opposition delegation and to appoint advisors [to the delegation], and that the confidence-building steps that the opposition was demanding ahead of the Geneva convention, such as releasing prisoners, lifting the siege from Syrian cities, ceasing the bombardment of civilians, and dispatching humanitarian aid, etc., would be part of the Geneva talks [themselves]... Kerry stressed in the meeting that Bashar Al-Assad had a right to run in the future presidential elections... [He] asked the HNC to go to Geneva, otherwise it would lose its allies, and [only] it would be responsible for this... Kerry added that his country would only intervene in Syria to fight terrorism, not for any other purpose."
Haytham Al-Maleh, chair of the legal committee of the Syrian National Coalition, which is represented in the HNC, described Kerry as "a distorted copy of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov."
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Muhammad 'Aloush: American Pressure Will Meet With A Firm Response
HNC officials clarified that they rejected the U.S. dictates. Chief opposition negotiator Muahmmad 'Aloush said that Kerry had come to pressure the HNC to give up its humanitarian preconditions and agree to negotiate about them instead, and warned that "the American pressure will meet with a firm response."
HNC spokesman Riyadh Na'san clarified: "The opposition has made numerous and painful concessions. We began with a slogan [calling for] Assad's ouster, and [now] we have reached the point of [agreeing to] let him remain in power for a limited period in order to lay the ground for a political resolution... The Riyadh delegation will not agree to the presence of another [opposition] delegation at the talks, because it is difficult to form a body with two heads... Our purpose in going to Geneva is not to enter into a broad government with the Assad regime but [to launch a phase of] political transition."
Columnist On Opposition Website: Going To Geneva On Kerry's Terms Is Suicide
In response to Kerry's reported statements at the meeting with the opposition representatives, Ghassan Yasin, a columnist on the opposition website Orient News, wrote that going to Geneva on the terms dictated by Kerry would be suicide for the opposition. He said: "Kerry wants the delegation to go to Geneva when not a single one of the confidence-building steps has been implemented and without any guarantees. Worse, he wants them to go there in order to form a government together with Assad's regime [that used] chemical [weapons] and then hold presidential elections in which Assad will run! The Secretary of State did not forget to threaten the opposition that, if it decides to boycott the Geneva talks, [the Americans] will stop supporting it.
"Agreeing to go to Geneva on Kerry's terms is suicide. The opposition cannot go [there] in the present circumstances and in compliance with the American and Russian wishes. True, the opposition's options are limited and its room for maneuvering is narrow, but it can nevertheless leverage the disagreements between the Americans and the Europeans, and especially the French, who do not accept the American proposal... That is the only way to pressure the Americans to stop their dictates."
Yasin added: "Russia is 'negotiating' by means of force on the battlefield, and the opposition cannot make achievements at the negotiation table without defeating the Russians [on the ground], even if only on some fronts. Force can only be answered with force."
 The HNC was formed at the Syrian opposition's December 9, 2015 convention in Riyadh.
 The Geneva I Communique of 2012 called for establishing a transitional governing body with full executive powers and urged the Syrian government to take confidence-building measures. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No.1214, UN Security Council Resolution 2254 On Syria: International Community Softens Its Position On Assad Regime, December 28, 2015.
 Enabbaladi.org, January 24, 2016.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 26, 2016.
 Enabbaladi.org, January 24, 2016.
 Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), January 24, 2016.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 27, 2016.
 Orient-news.net, January 25, 2016.
 Rozana.fm, January 24, 2016.
 Orient-news.net, January 24, 2016.