Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Military council or transitional authority?

Could a ruling military council be the best solution to the Syrian crisis, asks Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

In July 2012, the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) issued the Geneva Declaration on the Syrian crisis, ratified by the UN and supported by all the parties to the conflict.

It called for the formation of a transitional governing authority with full powers that would assume power in Syria and shepherd the country towards democracy, bringing an end to five decades of rule by the Al-Assad family, beginning with President Hafez Al-Assad until today’s President Bashar Al-Assad, the son of Hafez.

For the past three years the international community has attempted to implement the terms of the declaration but without success. Despite the holding of the Geneva II and III and Vienna I and II Conferences, only resolutions broadly similar to the Geneva Declaration have been issued, at times calling for “a transitional government with full powers” and at others “a credible, non-sectarian transitional authority.”

The international community has said that the transitional body should be formed after negotiations between the regime and the opposition under international auspices and with the participation of all relevant regional and international parties. Several rounds of talks have been held to lay the groundwork for the negotiations, but these have made no notable progress.

Events on the ground have moved in the opposite direction. The regime has become more insistent on resolving the conflict militarily, mobilising its militias to fight all factions of the Syrian armed opposition. Al-Assad has said that he intends to destroy the armed opposition, and he continues to refuse to recognise the political opposition, meaning that the negotiations are a non-starter.

Iran has stepped up its military intervention in Syria, supplying the regime with arms, training and fighters. It has also recruited tens of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi sectarian mercenaries, forming them into organised brigades. It has asked the Lebanese Hizbullah group to intervene in Syria in favour of the regime, though in fact this has meant in favour of the Iranian strategy in the country.

The world’s major powers have not followed through on their pledges to form a transitional governing body. Russia has not put pressure on the Syrian regime, and the US has not attempted to use its influence to make it a reality.

In September 2014 the US-led international coalition launched air strikes on various unidentified Syrian targets. In September 2015, Russia initiated direct military intervention in Syria, setting up bases in areas under regime control and launching thousands of offensives against factions of the armed opposition.

Syria’s Kurds then formed military forces, bringing in fighters from the Qandil Mountains connected to the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party and cooperating first with the regime, then with the Russians, and finally with the Americans to achieve their aims.

They took control of large swathes of northern Syria with the goal of forming an independent federal region and began to expand their territory by occupying more cities in the north thanks to intensive US air support.

The presence of these parties did not stop the expansion of the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria, which has not been directly targeted by regime forces or their allies, including Russia.

The Syrian armed opposition has split into hundreds of independent brigades, some of them infiltrated by the regime. None of the moderate factions have received outside support, weakening them further, but the Islamist factions supported by regional states have risen to prominence. The political opposition has been unable to win the trust of the armed opposition and has been able to do little more than provide media support.

With chances for the formation of a transitional governing body declining and ever more military bodies being deployed in Syria, many Syrians now see the formation of a joint military council as a possible solution to the crisis.

Consisting of officers that have defected from the country’s armed forces and Alawite officers without blood on their hands, the council could take hold of the reins of power in Syria, restore security, oversee the political transition, fight extremist organisations and expel foreign fighters of all nationalities and ideologies.

Hundreds of Syrian officers who have defected from the regime are now in Turkey and Jordan, along with tens of thousands of soldiers who have refused to make war on their own people. These are sons of the military establishment, and they are ready to work with their peers in the Syrian army to restore stability to the country.

Many Alawite officers without blood on their hands are now convinced that the regime has involved them in a futile war, but they fear breaking with the regime in the absence of an alternative that would guarantee their safety and the future of those they represent. They could be prepared to participate in an internationally supported joint military council that could make such guarantees.

The Syrian political opposition is lukewarm about the idea, however. Some fear that the country’s military and security establishment, against which the revolution has been waged, will again take control of Syria, while others fear they will be marginalised and come out without any clear gains.

The idea is not sufficiently fleshed out, still others say. The regime wants a joint body that has no say in military and security affairs, while the opposition sees one of this body’s most important tasks as restructuring the security and military apparatus. The regime will not abandon its military aims, and the opposition knows the regime will not change as long as these remain.

Hassan Rajju, a former officer in the Syrian Republican Guard and now a Free Syrian Army (FSA) officer, said that officers who have defected from the Syrian army would work within a joint opposition-army military council provided it was not under Al-Assad’s control.

“The council could include army officers, including Alawites with no blood on their hands, and opposition fighters of various orientations. But no regime figures can be allowed to be members of the council,” he said.

“Many senior defectors have nominated Brigadier-General Manaf Tlass to head the council, since he could be acceptable to both sides. He has the ability to bring in officers from across the religious, geographic and national spectrum, including Alawites, and he has ties with Arab, regional and Western powers,” said Rajju.

“But there must be full transitional justice for all those who have committed war crimes in Syria or given orders to kill or destroy.”

“Many Alawite officers realise that Al-Assad has exploited the minorities in a sectarian game of his own devising, reducing the Syrian people to members of his own family and acting against Alawites who do not support him, such as members of the Murshidiya sect,” said a high-ranking Alawite officer, who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity.

“When the uprising began in 2011 we also had demands that dovetailed with those of the revolution, but the regime frightened many Alawites and dragged them into its war. But today there are hundreds of senior officers and thousands of soldiers prepared to cooperate with the Free Syrian Army in a joint military council that has no ties with Al-Assad, provided it receives international support.”

Officers on both sides now say the need for such a council is growing by the day, saying that if it is accepted by the international community it could be the only entity capable of stopping the regime militias and fighting IS and Al-Qaeda on the ground.

It would act to guarantee the rights of minorities and would end the role of the regime and tame the ambitions of the opposition. It would order all Iraqi, Lebanese and Iranian forces out of Syria and would regulate the political sphere.

If the US and Russia truly wish to see an end to the Syrian crisis, the formation of a joint military council could be the shortest path to ending a bloody civil war that is now entering its sixth year.

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