WASHINGTON — In its last-ditch attempt to get moderate Syrian opposition groups to the negotiating table, the Obama administration faces the prospect that a no-show wouldn't be such a bad thing.
With less than two weeks to go before a long-planned peace conference in Switzerland, the main Western-backed moderate political group seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad has still not decided if it will attend. It's the latest frustration for the U.S. and allies who have spent the last 18 months trying to negotiate a transition of power from Assad to a new, representative government.
But even if the Syrian National Coalition agrees to attend the Jan. 22 peace meeting — as Secretary of State John Kerry will push this weekend in Paris with the coalition's newly re-elected president — analysts say it does not have enough credibility with other Syrian groups to sit as an official counterbalance to Assad's regime. And it might not matter, in the long run, if they don't show.
"If the expectations to begin with are very low, then you can't really fail — can you?" Kamran Bokhari, a Toronto-based expert on Mideast issues for the global intelligence company Stratfor, said Friday. "The constraints that the U.S. has are clear to the international community, and it's not going to be a surprise.
"What would be a surprise is if they are able to make a difference," Bokhari said. "So nobody has too high of expectations."
Coalition council President Ahmad al-Jarba, who was re-elected last week, heads a shaky alliance of opposition groups that is sharply divided on whether to attend the conference, designed to begin a negotiated peace after three years of civil war.
At least 45 members have temporarily suspended their membership over the impasse. Most of its leaders are in exile outside of Syria and have been accused by rebel fighters and other activists inside the war-torn country of being ineffective and out of touch.
An estimated 180 representatives of opposition groups to Assad met in southern Spain on Friday to seek common ground.
In the meantime, Assad has stabilized his grasp on areas of Syria he still controls and shows no sign of stepping down in the war that has left at least 120,000 people dead.
Persuading al-Jarba and the coalition to attend the peace conference in Montreux, Switzerland, will be a top priority for Kerry and 10 other diplomats from Western countries and Sunni-dominated Arab states meeting Sunday in Paris.
For Syrian coalition members, the conference in Switzerland offers their first opportunity to face the Syrian administration face to face.
A senior State Department official said Friday that U.S. officials believe the Syrian coalition will be at the negotiating table in Montreux in spite of difficulties along the way because the coalition won't want to miss the unique opportunity the conference offers them.
"We have always said that we would like to see a representative delegation including the armed opposition," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. "We remain engaged with the opposition and we look forward to the opposition naming a representative delegation in the days ahead."
Iran, which is allied with Assad, will not attend the peace conference, U.S. officials said. That clears at least one objection of the moderate coalition. But the coalition also has asked that the peace conference set a time frame for an end to the fighting as its main focus, which U.S. officials have rejected.
Kerry also will likely discuss the possibility of resuming nonlethal aid to moderate rebel groups as a part of the talks in Paris.
The aid, which included medical supplies and communications equipment and was halted in December amid fears it was being used by insurgents among the rebel groups, could be used as a bargaining point with al-Jarba. A senior State Department official said no decision has been made to do so, but that it is debated frequently with improving security within some parts of Syria. The official was not authorized to speak by name and requested anonymity.
Whether or not al-Jarba's group attends, Bokhari said the main purpose of the peace conference likely will aim to bring together the disparate backers of the regime and opposition groups to hammer out an agreement on moving forward. That is particularly important now as sectarian violence in Syria is spilling over into neighboring Iraq and Lebanon.
"If you can't make progress in resolving the conflict, can you make progress in dealing with the amount of human suffering and spillover into other counties from the conflict?" said Anthony Cordesman, a Mideast scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"The whole idea that somehow a dialogue between the rebels and the people at the meeting would produce a political solution, or progress toward one, is literally almost the art of the incredible at this point, whether they show up or not," Cordesman said Friday. "On the other hand, there will be a lot of people there who could do more about at least making some progress on humanitarian issues."