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Syrian Opposition Group Treads New Territory In Geneva


The first round of the Syria peace talks is set to adjourn tomorrow. The opposition delegation is expecting to leave Geneva without progress toward its top goal: a transitional government that ends the tenure of President Bashar al-Assad. The opposition began these talks with a reputation as a fractious and ineffective group.

And NPR's Peter Kenyon reports the delegates have been surprised and pleased to see messages of support beginning to come from inside Syria.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Murhaf Jouejati wasn't expecting to be part of the negotiating team for the Syrian National Coalition. He'd already resigned from an earlier opposition group, having found it hopelessly dysfunctional. Back at his job at the National Defense University in Washington, Jouejati received an 11th-hour call to join the coalition's delegation in Geneva. His expectations were low, but he's happy to find that this group is at least mastering the basics.

MURHAF JOUEJATI: The organization is much better. We hold regular meetings and we attend on time and each one speaks in turn. We engage in self-criticism. And we do these sessions, we - sometimes late into the night, and we go back the next morning armed with the experiences of yesterday.

KENYON: Inside Syria, the coalition is still sometimes dismissed as outsiders. But over several days of largely result-free talks, a curious thing has happened: the coalition has begun to grow into the role it has always claimed and people in Syria are beginning to notice.

In a Turkish cafe near the Syrian border, human rights lawyer Mahmoud al-Hadi says he was forced to flee the city of Raqqa, as extreme Islamists took over the area. He says many Syrians, after seeing the coalition members' work in Geneva, are starting to appreciate them.

MAHMOUD AL-HADI: (Through Translator) Before these talks, most people in Syria didn't believe the coalition represented them. But when the people saw the speeches and how the coalition sounded compared with the government, most people are now behind the coalition. They're definitely winning support inside Syria.

KENYON: This shift in opinion seems to be occurring despite the government's best efforts to denigrate and ridicule the opposition. Western officials here say they've been impressed by the coalition's ability to ignore the insults and stay focused on its demand for a transitional government.

Monzer Akbik, chief of staff to coalition President Ahmad Jarba, says they report back contacts in Syria every day, and he's seeing a positive reaction. But he has no illusions about the difficulties ahead.

MONZER AKBIK: We have noticed a lot of support now, much more than before. The world is start to hearing them now. But at the same time, I don't think this will go on for very long time because they want progress, they want something to happen.

FATIMA KHAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: Syrians have also seen powerful government officials confronted on the streets of Geneva, as with this encounter with the mother of a doctor who died in Syrian custody.

KHAN: Please tell me why you killed my son, please. For God's sake, tell me why you killed my son. He was a humanitarian aid worker. He wasn't a fighter. He was a humanitarian...

KENYON: The Syrian delegation ignored the cries of Fatima Khan, whose 32-year-old son, Abbas, was arrested while trying to provide medical care in Syria. She says after months of seeking his release, she went to his prison only to be told he'd committed suicide. She's convinced he was killed but has no way to prove it. She says he wasn't political, just a doctor moved by the images of suffering inside Syria.

KHAN: Sir, it was only unfortunate that he was found at the rebel area. But he wasn't helping rebels. No, he was my son. I know him. He had nothing to do with the conflict.

KENYON: With this round of talks due to wrap up Friday, opposition member Murhaf Jouejati says it's critical that the forces that helped bring Syria to the table, especially Russia, use their influence to make the next round more productive.

JOUEJATI: There must be from the international community real, tangible, concrete pressure on the Assad regime that they need to get serious about these talks, and not just to paint any opponent of the regime as a terrorist. My big fear is that these talks may raise expectations, only to be - to crash in a week or two if nothing happens.

KENYON: As for the coalition's rising reputation, some analysts wonder if the government will be as willing to sit across the table from these opposition figures in the future.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Geneva. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.