THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Tucked away in a stately mansion in The Hague, members of the Syrian opposition in exile have been given lessons in how to get what they want at crucial peace talks next year in Geneva.
Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans, who funded the training last week at the Clingendael think tank, said the sessions were aimed at strengthening the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition's hand at the negotiating table.
Trainer Wilbur Perlot said Monday that 17 members of the exile opposition group took part in five days of training — using role playing and simulations to learn crucial give-and-take lessons for international negotiations.
The Geneva peace conference is scheduled for Jan. 22. Western leaders expect the coalition to be the chief opposition negotiator for Syria.
The Syrian foreign ministry has said it will send a high-level delegation to the Geneva talks with clear directives from President Bashar Assad — a man many in the opposition accuse of war crimes. Syria's civil war that is in its third year and has cost, according to activists, more than 120,000 lives.
Clingendael trains scores of diplomats each year, but Perlot said working with the Syrians had a different dynamic because of the emotional charge they brought to the table.
The opposition figures tended to start from that ideological standpoint they are in the right, he said, but have to learn to accept that they may have to be flexible with the people they have to deal with.
"That is for them very difficult to accept, because if you think that you have to negotiate with a criminal or if you have to start with Russia who is supporting a criminal — that's their words, not mine necessarily — how do you shift away from the feeling?" Perlot said.
He said the experience should also help with the group's talks with other opposition groups. Many within Syria's splintered opposition movement feel a deep sense of disillusionment and distrust toward the Syrian National Coalition, who are viewed by many as out-of-touch exiles with inflated egos and non-Syrian allegiances.
In a video posted on Clingendael's website, coalition Secretary General Badr Jamous welcomed the lessons he learned in The Hague.
"We need this help for our negotiations with the regime and even inside Syria," he said. "We now have a lot of problems inside Syria."