Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Which Syrian opposition?

Moscow is taking charge of many things in Syria these days, including the choice of opposition negotiators, writes Bassel Oudat

Al-Ahram Weekly

Russia likes to play judge and jury, Syrian opposition members have recently discovered. Not content to take over the country’s military actions, Moscow is now throwing its weight around further, notably by telling the opposition how to act and who must speak in its name.

Moscow has its own interpretation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. It believes that the resolution means the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad must be allowed to continue to function, with some minor alterations, and the opposition be gradually integrated into the country’s power apparatus.

This is not how the opposition sees things. For its members, Resolution 2254 should pave the way for a transition of power involving the termination of the current regime and the introduction of a democratic government.

But to enforce its views, Moscow has decided to control the current negotiations down to the last detail, and is even interfering in the naming of the opposition delegation. Russian diplomats have handpicked 15 individuals said to belong to the opposition whose view of a solution to the Syrian crisis is more in line with that of the regime than that of the bulk of the rest of the opposition.

It has insisted that its list of opposition candidates should be part of the negotiating team for the opposition, a notion that most of the regime’s opponents has flatly rejected.

Fresh from a recent conference in Riyadh, the opposition has formed a Higher Committee for the Negotiations and named its own delegation to the talks. But Moscow has not accepted this. Unless its list is integrated into the opposition’s delegation, it will not allow the talks to begin, it has threatened.

The opposition has said it cannot go to Geneva, where the talks are to be held, unless Moscow backs down. In a further act of defiance, it has named as head of its negotiating team a commander of Jaysh Al-Islam, or the Army of Islam, a group that Moscow and the Syrian regime describe as terrorist.

The opposition has also insisted that prior to the talks all aerial bombardments by the Russians and barrel-bombings by the regime must be stopped and that rations and medicine be allowed into besieged towns.

So far, much of this seems like a traditional piece of Russian arm-twisting, but things have recently got worse. During a recent meeting with opposition figures, US Secretary of State John Kerry told them they should accommodate the Russians, agree to their interpretation of Resolution 2254, and settle for a government of national unity, not the transitional government they have been hoping for. Unless the opposition cooperates, it risks losing the support of its foreign allies, Kerry hinted.

Differences over the formation of the opposition delegation have thus taken on a new dimension. If the opposition acquiesces to current pressures, it risks losing everything. If the Russians manage to force the opposition’s hand, the regime’s interpretation of the conflict will dominate the talks.

Instead of regime change being the focal point of the talks, it will be the “war on terror”. And instead of purging the army and the security services that have caused unspeakable mayhem in the country, the negotiators will be discussing way of adding opposition figures to the current regime.

The individuals Russia has put on its opposition list have no intention of bringing down the regime, or of introducing wide-ranging changes in governance, or of introducing real democracy to the country. Their views do not differ much from those of Moscow, and their agenda cannot possibly lead to serious regime change in the country.

Salih Muslim, leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has been included by the Russians on their list. Muslim heads a separatist group with connections to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is considered by Turkey and the US to be a terror group.

He is suspected of having close ties with the Syrian regime and has managed to create a Kurdish canton in northern Syria with the help of militia groups known as the Asayish. The PYD has been accused by international organisations of committing war crimes in the areas it controls.

Another name on the list is Qadri Jamil, a former deputy prime minister and leader of the Popular Front for Change and Liberation. A communist-leaning politician, Jamil forged close ties with the Syrian security services and was appointed deputy prime minister for economic affairs after the beginning of the country’s revolution. He then fell out with the regime and went to live in Moscow.

A third name on the Russian list is Haytham Manna, a human rights advocate who used to be a member of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC) before he formed the Qamh Current, the Arabic acronym for Qiyam-Mowatna-Huquq, or Values-Citizenry-Rights.

He then took part in the Cairo opposition conferences and recently went into alliance with Salih Muslim and formed the Syrian Democratic Council, which some view as the political wing of the PYD militia known as Asayish.

Emad Bozu, a Syrian opposition writer, questions Moscow’s choice of opposition members. The selection shows that Russia wants the PYD and a selection of powerless individuals to decide the country’s future, he said. “The common denominator among the people on Russia’s list is that they are all hostile to the revolution,” he said.

Recently, Russia leaked an agreement that it signed with the Syrian regime in late 2015. According to the agreement, Russia will be allowed to keep its troops indefinitely in Syria and for them to be given immunity from prosecution. Photographs were also recently released of Russian troops taking part in military operations near Latakia.

Russian officials, it seems, have concluded that Syria should be the 23rd republic of the Russian Federation and an area they intend to keep and conquer.

Riyad Na’san Agha, spokesman for the Higher Committee for the Negotiations, is firm on rejecting the Russian offer. “We will not accept the presence of another delegation. You cannot have one body with two heads,” he said.

The opposition, he added, does not intend to go to Geneva to form “an expanded government with the regime, but instead to achieve political transition”.

Maged Kiyali, a political analyst, says the opposition cannot afford to give in, but “must insist on naming its delegation”, regardless of pressures from the Russians and other international powers.

Recognising that the opposition may not achieve its full objectives in the upcoming talks, Kiyali advised it to stay its ground, for this is the best way to “improve conditions in the transitional phase”.

Writer Ibrahim Al-Jabin maintains that the Russians are trying to give the regime the “soft landing” the Americans conceived at the onset of the Arab Spring. But try as they may, they will not be able to resuscitate the Al-Assad regime.

“The Al-Assad regime has lost its relevance. Even if it is resuscitated, it will not be able to function,” he said.

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