BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels are sending more than a dozen representatives next week to the capital of Kazakhstan for talks with government representatives, the first such negotiations between the two sides in a year.
But the loss of Aleppo, the election of Donald Trump and the pivot of Turkey toward Russia has left the opposition with very little room to maneuver.
Without much foreign support and with Syria's wider rebellion in crisis, the opposition will be negotiating for scraps, having been forced to take part in a Russia-led initiative that won't challenge President Bashar Assad's hold on power.
"They have no choice. With Trump's win, any lingering hope to push the West into increasing its rebel support is lost," said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
Monday's scheduled meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, highlights the dramatic changes in the year since the last talks broke down in Geneva.
Russia's massive military intervention has unequivocally given Assad the upper hand, leaving his forces in control of Syria's major cities and key population centers.
In the most significant setback for the rebellion since the conflict in Syria began in March 2011, pro-government forces recaptured the northern city of Aleppo in December, ending the opposition's four-year hold on parts of Syria's largest and most important city. For the rebels, it was an emotional departure from a place that once represented the dream of a Syria free of Assad.
It will be difficult for them to recover from such a defeat.
Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan is embroiled in troubles at home and has moved closer to Russia recently, prioritizing the fight against Kurds and the Islamic State group over support for the Syrian rebels he has propped up for years. Instead, Ankara is leading Syrian opposition fighters in its own offensive against IS and Kurdish rebels in northern Syria.
On Friday, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek said his country has to be "realistic" and can no longer insist on any settlement for Syria's long-running war without Assad.
"The Russians have dealt us a military defeat in Aleppo," said Yasser al-Youssef, a member of the political bureau of the Noureddin el-Zinki armed group, a major rebel group in northern Syria.
"Now they are trying to deal us another defeat, politically," he said, referring to the conference in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan.
The humiliating loss forced the rebel factions on Dec. 29 to sign a cease-fire deal in which they agreed to the talks with representatives of Assad's government.
The Russians cast the talks as the first opportunity to bring opposition military leaders to the table. Officials have said the session initially would focus on strengthening the truce in Syria, which Russia brokered with Turkey and Iran, and would help pave way for prospective talks in Geneva.
The negotiations will undoubtedly set the tone and agenda for future talks.
"Vladimir Putin's rush to establish a new political framework through organizing Syria peace talks in the Kazakh capital are primarily designed to cement the Kremlin's position as the architect of a political solution," said Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa director at Eurasia Group.
He said Putin's effort is set to eliminate any negotiating structure that would require Assad's removal.
Week-long negotiations in Turkey ahead of the talks reflect deep disagreement among the rebels on the goals and purpose of attending. With few friends left, the armed opposition also has no significant lifeline beside Ankara, which also had sent its troops to Syria to lead an offensive against Islamic State militants and Kurdish fighters on its borders. Saudi Arabia, an early supporter of the uprising, has been embroiled in its own war in Yemen, drying up coffers amid lower oil prices. Qatar, another ally of the rebels, would still have to coordinate with Turkey to reach them.
Jamil al-Saleh, commander of the U.S.-backed Alezzah Army, praised Turkey for hosting nearly 3 million Syrian refugees and keeping the only remaining route for civilians and fighters to the outside world. "They are the biggest ally," he said.
His group is sending two representatives to Astana. But al-Saleh said the delegates would pull out if there is no serious effort to form a transitional government and end Assad's rule.
Al-Saleh said the ceiling for talks is to reinforce the cease-fire, open humanitarian corridors for besieged areas and create a mechanism to hold violators to account. "Meanwhile, we are waiting for the U.S. to change its position," he added.
Another aim of Russia is to separate the rebels from the al-Qaida-affiliated Fatah al-Sham group, which Moscow insisted on excluding from the cease-fire. The front is one of the most powerful groups and maintained close alliances with most of the other rebels at times of intense confrontations with pro-government forces.
Disassociating with the al-Qaida affiliate at a time of dwindling support could spell the end for many of the myriad armed groups. It also could spark tensions among the rebels.
"You can't ... try to drag the Syrian people toward a fourth front," said al-Youssef of the al-Zinki group, suggesting that giving up on the Fatah-al-Sham Front would further complicate the war and spell more radicalization.
Al-Zinki is one of the few groups that won't take part.
Another powerful group, Ahrar al-Sham, said it also won't participate in the talks because, among other things, excluding Fatah al-Sham is an attempt to divide the rebels.
If there are "good results," the group said it will support the talks. But it added: "It is a lie to say that now is the time for political action only. Now the battle is on, and the fields of jihad are calling for the lions of Islam."
But in a reflection of a highly volatile terrain, reports emerged Thursday of clashes between the two groups, which had been in talks to merge.
According to the opposition-run Qasioun news agency and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, fighters from Fatah al-Sham assaulted Ahrar al-Sham-controlled checkpoints and positions in Idlib's western countryside and arrested fighters from the Islamist group. The Fatah al-Sham Front, which has been advertising its suicide attacks in parts of Syria despite the cease-fire, also seized a crossing on the Syria-Turkey border, according to the monitoring group.
Ahrar al-Sham supporters have criticized the group's decision to boycott the talks, allegedly under pressure from the more powerful Fatah al-Sham.
The divisions came despite efforts by the opposition to coalesce.
"The rebels are unlikely to find unity in defeat where they have not found it in victory," Landis said.
Part of the conversation now is how and when Assad leaves, but there seems to be tacit acceptance — or resignation — that the 51-year-old leader will stay for the time being.
An Arab diplomat said Turkey has pressed the opposition to attend the Astana meeting because it has a long-term interest in keeping a stake in Syria. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly.
Russia may be taking advantage of a weakened Erdogan and the transition in the U.S. to push the Syrian political process forward and target terrorist groups in Syria.
Assad said the talks will focus on the cease-fire and humanitarian assistance, and are unlikely to delve into political issues.
In remarks to Japanese broadcaster TBS TV, he said the conference offers armed groups a chance to join reconciliation initiatives through which the government has negotiated local surrenders, allowing fighters to either lay down arms or relocate.
"We have no expectations from the Astana talks, but we have hopes that it becomes a forum for talks between all Syrian parties," Assad said.
Hashem Osseiran in Beirut contributed.