Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Caving in to Russia?

Questions have been raised about the role of Russian pressure after the Syrian opposition replaced its senior negotiators this week, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Senior members of the High Negotiations Committee representing the Syrian opposition at the Geneva talks were replaced this week, including the head of the committee, and an announcement was also made that the committee would be reaching out to other opposition currents with a view to including members of them in the official negotiating body.

Denying that the committee had been subject to pressures of any kind, a spokesman said it was simply “putting its house in order.” However, it is widely known that Moscow had wanted to see changes in the negotiating body that would have sidelined representatives of the armed factions and brought in conciliatory figures closer to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

According to some observers, this week’s changes to the composition of the committee could have come in the wake of Russian pressures, giving it a complexion more consistent with the Russian vision for a political solution to the Syrian conflict.

The Geneva negotiations were suspended on 27 April after the Syrian opposition insisted on the implementation of the preconditions of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which requires the regime to respect the truce, not obstruct the entry of humanitarian assistance to towns and cities in the country, and release detainees.

Since then, the opposition has been pessimistic about the possibility of a third round of talks, sensing no real international will to compel the regime to abide by the resolution’s terms. It has also been reviewing its political positions in an effort to reach the best possible negotiating stance.

Moscow has long demanded the disqualification of representatives of the armed factions from the negotiating committee, describing them as “terrorists.” It has also long sought to insert figures friendly to it into the committee, ostensibly to expand it to include representatives of all Syrians.

In practice, however, Russia has long wanted greater influence within the committee, seeking to mold it to its policies and lead it to abandon demands for regime change in Syria and especially of the head of the regime.

Syrian activist Fawaz Tello expressed the opinion of many in the Syrian opposition not in the Higher Negotiations Committee when he said that “the decision to remove the Head of the Committee, Asaad Al-Zoabi of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), compel senior negotiator Mohamed Alloush, a representative of the Army of Islam, to step aside, and directly coordinate with Moscow and the Kurds is the prelude to a surrender in the coming negotiations. The claims of the committee to represent the demands of the Syrian Revolution have lost their legitimacy as a result.”

“It should be remembered that the people who will replace them are the same ones who led the Syrian National Council and then the Syrian National Coalition. They are now back at the forefront as a result of a process of artificial selection and the influence of those most connected to parties abroad at the expense of the demands of the revolution,” Tello said.

It is not clear who was responsible for the changes in the committee’s make-up, since the pressures on the opposition have been huge after it suspended its participation in the Geneva talks. The US, Russia, and even some European states have been attempting to persuade it to return to the negotiations and put new demands on the table.

Eqab Yehia, head of the Syrian Democratic National Bloc and a member of the Syrian National Coalition, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the Higher Negotiations Committee will return to the negotiating table if a date is set for the next session because it can’t do otherwise. It cannot just passively refuse to do so.”

The committee has faced numerous criticisms for its allegedly incoherent composition, inclusion of figures who have repeatedly failed, use of the same tired mechanisms, poor media performance, and lack of clear primary and alternative strategies. However, the committee is broadly representative of opposition factions across the political spectrum, and it also includes independent figures who represent those not part of the Syrian National Coalition. 

Moscow has been seeking to bring all the Syrian political factions into the High Negotiations Committee, ostensibly to expand its representation, although some of these factions are close to the regime. It believes that inserting them into the committee will give a majority to those who favour reconciliation with the regime, fostering the adoption of a solution amenable to it and to Moscow.

But it is unlikely that a change in the leadership of the committee will jumpstart the Geneva Conference, especially since the regime refuses to discuss the fate of Al-Assad, seeing this as a red line not open to negotiation. The regime insists that any negotiations for political change must respect the current constitution, which gives the president powers that permit him to obstruct any decisions taken by the transitional governing body that the international community wants to create to lead the Syrian transition.

The Syrian opposition rejects these positions, and it will be difficult to persuade it to start direct negotiations with the regime delegation.

“The resignation of representatives of the combat brigades from the Negotiations Committee reflects the local, regional, and international realisation that there is no point in carrying on with the negotiations at present and that there is a need to reorganise the committee,” said Mohamed Sarmini, political advisor to the head of the Syrian Provisional Government.

“Talking about negotiations at the present time is meaningless. The regime won’t accept them unless it is forced to do so by changing the balance of power on the ground.”

The shift in the makeup of the committee coincides with major shifts on the ground in Syria. The truce concluded in March has collapsed, and with the support of Russian airpower regime forces are launching major offensives against Aleppo in northern Syria, where the opposition holds a large part of the city, and the city of Raqqa, held by the Islamic State (IS) group.

The Syrian Kurds, supported by the US, have also begun a campaign to expand the area under their control in northern Syria, hoping to flesh out the federal canton they hope to establish along the Turkish border. A division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard supported by Lebanese and Iraqi sectarian militias has been deployed in several areas in an attempt to supplant the armed opposition and expand its own influence on the ground.

These military actions are tantamount to messages sent by the outside parties involved in the Syrian conflict. The Americans want to send a message to the Russians that they are not the only ones waging battles in Syria. Russia wants to send a message to the US that it is capable of waging large-scale battles in Syria, and the Iranians want to show Russia and the US that they cannot be ignored.

All of these messages show that a negotiated political settlement will be shaped by the calculations of the intervening states and not those of the Syrian opposition and regime.

The armed opposition is no longer capable of defeating the regime on its own, especially when the latter has powerful allies in the shape of Russia and Iran who provide it with guns, fighters and air support. Meanwhile, US support for the opposition has waned, and it has placed restrictions on the opposition’s regional allies, preventing them from sending in heavy weaponry.

At the same time, the opposition still has popular support and the ability to wage sustained street warfare. Its support will be crucial for the success of any agreement, and the negotiations cannot succeed without it. Even if the military opposition’s representatives are no longer members of the Negotiations Committee, their presence will be felt behind the scenes.

The Syrian opposition believes that with the US presidential elections shortly to be in full swing the US administration will be preoccupied on the domestic front, making Syria less of a priority. By the end of this month, conditions on the ground in Syria are likely to be brought to a standstill and any political negotiations postponed.

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