Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February
Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February

Ahram Weekly

Personal initiative or wider plan?

The head of the Syrian National Coalition has put forward a personal initiative for dialogue with the regime, raising questions as to his reasons for doing so, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

In a surprise development, Moez Al-Khatib, head of the Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC), this week proposed a “personal initiative” for dialogue with the Syrian regime on the condition that 160,000 prisoners, many of them women, were released from Syrian jails and the papers of Syrians living abroad were renewed.

Were these steps to be taken, he suggested, dialogue could follow between the SNC and representatives of the Syrian regime in Cairo, Tunis or Istanbul.

Although the initiative by the head of the largest opposition bloc abroad came in the form of a post on his Facebook page and was presented as an initiative designed to prevent more bloodshed in Syria, it has triggered unexpected domestic and international reactions and broken a weeks-old stalemate on the Syrian crisis.

Al-Khatib’s initiative comes more than a month after Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad announced his call on the opposition to engage in dialogue sponsored by the regime, which aimed to improve governance mechanisms but not the removal of the regime.

It also coincides with the opposition inside the country announcing its willingness to see a political solution that would begin with an end to the violence and the return of the army to the barracks, as well as negotiating with the regime to hand over power to a transitional government with a full mandate.

This transitional government would then overhaul the country’s army and security agencies, and it would be responsible for drafting a new constitution and holding parliamentary and presidential elections.

 The SNC had earlier rejected these proposals, describing them as “surrender”.

Reactions to Al-Khatib’s initiative were surprising because it was limited when compared to other proposals on the table, particularly those put forward by the domestic opposition, described by the SNC as the “soft opposition” on the grounds that it is allegedly close to the regime.

 They were also surprising because of the amount of international interest they gave rise to, with Russia and Iran, allies and supporters of the Syrian regime, immediately conjuring up solutions based on Al-Khatib’s ideas.

The US and some European states have also seemed interested in the proposals, though they do not contain conditions that they had insisted upon in the past, such as the departure of Al-Assad from power, the formation of a transitional government, and the restructuring of the Syrian military.

The opposition inside Syria, which observers believe has been subjected to a smear campaign by the opposition abroad, welcomed Al-Khatib’s initiative but noted that it was incomplete. It added that it is unlikely to be embraced by the Syrian people, since it does not appear to meet their minimum demands.

The head of the National Coordination Committee, part of the opposition inside Syria, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “Al-Khatib’s proposal is only partial, and it represents his personal viewpoint. It could be a prelude to other initiatives designed to resolve the Syrian crisis, but as it stands it is nothing more than a demand to release prisoners and not a proposal for a genuine political solution.”

“A genuine proposal would need to take into consideration conditions for dialogue with the regime and not just one emotional prerequisite. The Syrian people will not accept this after suffering nearly 70,000 deaths because of the regime’s military crackdown.”

Reactions to Al-Khatib’s proposal also came quickly from opposition groups supporting the SNC, with even the Coalition’s political committee stressing that dialogue with the regime could only be based on its departure.

Meanwhile, the Syrian National Council, a member of the SNC, criticised the plan, describing it as an individual position that contradicted the foundations of the Coalition since it did not insist upon the departure of the regime and all those associated with it.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood rejected the initiative, describing it as “an undisciplined personal endeavour” and stressing that it was “too late” for dialogue with Al-Assad. The opposition’s military wing also rejected dialogue with the regime, with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) saying that it would not stop fighting “even if the entire world stopped supporting it”.

In an attempt to justify his initiative, Al-Khatib said that it was “a personal opinion and I am responsible for it” and that he had simply wanted to “end the bloodshed and destruction”. He said that he would not agree to talks with Syrian Vice President Farouk Al-Sharaa and that the revolution would continue in parallel with any possible future dialogue with the regime.

The Syrian regime has not paid any attention to the initiative, with the country’s official media portraying it as an admission of defeat by the opposition and saying that the only possible basis for dialogue was the plan put forward by Al-Assad.

Russia and Iran found the initiative worthy of closer inspection, with the Russian and Iranian foreign ministers quickly asking to meet with Al-Khatib, the first meetings of their kind with Russian and Iranian officials.

The ministers described Al-Khatib’s willingness to reach an understanding with the Al-Assad regime as a major step towards resolving the two-year Syrian crisis.

These countries have been interested in the initiative for different reasons. Russia is facing a dilemma over Syria that has affected its standing with the international community, as has been indicated by its contradictory positions that sometimes publicly support the regime and sometimes denounce it.

A meeting with the SNC leader was a significant concession for Russia and demonstrated its predicament as it tried to take advantage of Al-Khatib’s initiative because it seemed to meet Moscow’s requirements.

The initiative is also partially acceptable to Tehran because Iran hopes to reach a compromise solution to the crisis, even if Al-Assad remains a figurehead without any real powers under it. The main thing from Iran’s point of view is that any new government in Syria should not be hostile to Iran and that Iran should not be made to pay a high price for its support of the regime throughout the revolution.

Washington wants Al-Khatib, who has strong support from the Muslim Brotherhood, to act as a buffer in any confrontations with the Salafist forces now playing a leading role in the armed opposition.

However, the meetings that have taken place in the wake of the initiative have resulted in little follow-up. For its part, the armed Syrian opposition says that Russia and Iran are dealing with the initiative as nothing more than another opportunity to eliminate or weaken the opposition.

Some observers believe that Al-Khatib was put under Arab and international pressure to launch his initiative and that he agreed to do so because he believed that the US and Russia were on the verge of reaching agreement on a peaceful solution that would keep Al-Assad in power during the transitional phase.

However, it is difficult to expect coordination among the major powers on the Syrian crisis, because key differences still exist between the US and Russia regarding the prerequisites to ending the conflict, especially the fate of Al-Assad himself and of key figures from his regime.

Al-Khatib’s proposal as it stands is incomplete and will most likely fade away because the Syrian people do not feel it meets their aspirations or guarantees regime change, and it does not guarantee that those responsible for the violence and killings in Syria will be prosecuted.

Moreover, it is unlikely that the regime itself will agree to the initiative since Al-Assad has already said he will reject any initiative by any international or other party that is dissimilar to his own proposal based on superficial reforms of the regime.

The opposition believes that the regime will eventually fall and that international negotiations should be about the shape of the new Syria not the inevitability of change. If it had not been for the Iranian and Russian support of the regime, the opposition says, it could not have continued its hardline stance, and it has called for a binding international resolution that will guarantee regime change.

Some observers believe that many Syrians are eager for peace and for calm to return to their country, but that they have been discouraged by the regime’s ferocity and by how Arab and western countries have failed the opposition and have blocked financial and military assistance to it.

Nonetheless, they assert that they will not submit to international solutions imposed on them through negotiations with the regime that do not guarantee regime change to create a democratic system of government in Syria that will end decades of tyranny.

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