Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Finding peace in Syria

The formation of a joint military council made up of the opposition and the regime is Syria’s best hope for the future, dissident officers tell Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

On 6 January, the Associated Press (AP) news agency leaked a US document detailing a timeline for ending the Syrian crisis. The timeline sets a date for the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power and details further steps for restructuring power in the country.

According to AP, the document expects Al-Assad to “relinquish” his position in March 2016 and his “inner circle” to depart with him. If everything goes to plan, the Syrian people would vote into office a new president and parliament in August 2017.

 Among other things, the plan calls for the formation of a joint military council made up of members from the regime and the opposition in April 2016. A general amnesty is to be declared, leading to the release of detainees on both sides. An interim governing body would run the country until new authorities are elected and a new constitution would be voted on in a referendum in March 2017.

In March 2017, the timeline reads: “Al-Assad relinquishes presidency; inner circle departs,” AP reported.

The US has distanced itself from the document, calling it a “staff-level think piece.”

According to US State Department spokesman John Kirby, the document is “preliminary and pre-decisional” and not “an official position.”

 It is “not an accurate projection of plans by the international community to effect a political transition in Syria,” Kirby added.

The Russians have rejected the document outright, saying that such details are to be left to the negotiations between the regime and the opposition that are expected to start in Geneva on 25 January.

The Syrian regime has called the document “delusionary.” Even the opposition is not pleased with the timetable set out in the document, as it would allow Al-Assad to stay in power for over 15 more months.

However, the document dovetails with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which envisages a very close agenda for resolving the Syrian conflict.

Several Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly support the formation of a joint military council with the regime, arguing that this is not only feasible but would also stabilise the country during the interim period.

Abdel-Razeq Asil, a senior FSA commander, said that for the past two years high-ranking dissident officers had been taking “substantive steps” towards forming such a council. According to Asil, the council would be led by “experienced dissident opposition officers and Syrian army officers whose hands are not tainted with blood.”

The task of the joint council would be “to restore control of all Syrian land, monitor the course of political change, and guarantee the implementation of any decisions reached through negotiations,” he said.

The 18-month transition period envisaged by the document is consistent with the plan endorsed by the Security Council last month.

Hassan Rajju, a former Republican Guard officer and current leader of the United Syrian Front, endorsed the idea of a regime-opposition joint military council. “We believe in a political solution. But having a joint military council is necessary for finding a political solution,” he said.

Rajju said that senior army and opposition officers have been trying to create such a council for over two years. “In 2013, we agreed on a comprehensive national plan suggested by dissident army commander Manaf Tallas, Rajju said. “Most senior dissident officers agreed to the plan. But we cannot rule out that some Islamist factions benefitting from the continued conflict may object to it.”

According to Rajju, Tallas, whose father served as a defence minister under former Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad, is the right man for the job. “Tallas is a reliable opposition figure and knows the military institutions well, as he was commander of the most important brigade in the Republican Guard and is trusted by both sides,” he added.

Air Force Colonel Abdel-Razzaq Freija, now commander of the FSA in Hama, agrees with this assessment. “We support the formation of a joint military council between the FSA and regular army officers who have not committed murder. Such army officers are our brothers, and it is the regime that has dragged them into its sectarian war,” Freija said.

Freija also voiced his admiration for Manaf Tallas. “We have been coordinating with him since 2012. There is no field commander in Syria who doesn’t know him personally,” he added.

The officers agreed that the formation of a joint military council could be the answer to the Syrian crisis. Whether part of a US plan or not, the council could be the only guarantee that any deal the politicians may reach will be enforceable.

The inclusion of Alawite officers in such a council could also banish fears of reprisals against the Alawite sect, which the regime has compromised through its murderous actions over the past four years.

Musa Nabih, a key figure in the opposition group the Sons of Syria Rally, voiced his support for the US document. “It is a realistic plan,” he said. “The formation of a joint military council before any political step is taken is very important. The council will have to have equally strong relations with the regime and the opposition.”

The council should be able to “supervise the political process and force both sides to implement the plan for political transformation,” Nabih noted.

With most Syrians hoping for a speedy end to the war, it seems that there is a growing realisation that for a political deal to stick, military commanders from both sides must reconcile themselves with each other.

Despite his controversial pedigree, there was agreement among those spoken to by the Weekly that Tallas is the man who could make that happen.

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