GENEVA — A big delegation representing Syrian opponents of President Bashar al-Assad arrived in Geneva Saturday, raising hopes that the group will soon agree to join peace talks aimed at ending the war in Syria.
The opposition stayed away from the first day of the talks on Friday, citing concerns that promised measures to halt the bombardment of civilian areas, release political prisoners and deliver humanitarian aid to starving civilians had not been implemented.
Their absence made for a rocky start to the peace process, with the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, who is hosting the talks, meeting only with the Syrian government delegation.
The Obama administration is hoping the negotiations will bring to an end the nearly five-year-old Syrian war, which has emerged as a significant obstacle to U.S. efforts to step up the fight against the Islamic State while also killing around 250,000 people and creating millions of refugees.
Under intense international pressure to participate in the talks, the opposition said late Friday that it would send a small team of three representatives to discuss their concerns with de Mistura.
Instead, 24 representatives showed up on a flight from the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh, where they had spent the past five days debating whether to participate or not. At least three other representatives arrived earlier in the day from other cities, meaning that most of the members of the High Negotiations Committee — the name given to the body formed to participate in the talks — are in Geneva.
The group got held up for several hours at the Geneva airport because many of them had not been issued visas for Switzerland, despite the fact that world leaders, including Secretary of State John F. Kerry, had been telephoning them throughout the week to beg them to show up, according to diplomats involved in efforts to secure their entry to the country.
Delegation members arriving at a Geneva hotel after finally getting the visas said they had come to press their demands for steps to alleviate suffering in Syria before they would agree to join in the negotiations.
“We will talk to de Mistura, and then we will decide,” said Monzer Makhous, a spokesman for the group. That meeting is expected to take place Sunday, he said.
Another spokesman, Salem Muslat, told reporters that the opposition did want to participate in the peace talks, but only after receiving assurances that its demands will be met.
“We are keen to make this negotiation a success. But we should ask the other side. The other side is pretending to represent the Syrian people. In fact, he is killing the Syrian people,” Muslat said.
Even if they do join the talks, the opposition and the government will not meet face to face. Because Russia and the Syrian government have labeled members of the Syrian opposition team “terrorists,” de Mistura downgraded the planned format of the talks to “proximity” talks, meaning that the factions will be in separate rooms and he will shuttle between them.
Russian objections had focused mostly on one man, Mohammed Alloush, the political representative of a major Islamist rebel faction, Jaish al-Islam. Alloush was not among those who arrived in Geneva Saturday, but opposition members denied that was because Russia had exerted pressure to keep him away.