Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1303, (14 - 20 July 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1303, (14 - 20 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Key to a solution in Syria?

Discussions are continuing on the formation of a joint military council to lead Syria during the transitional phase, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Over the last two weeks, there has been discussion about the need for a Syrian Military Council to lead the country during the transition period in the ongoing talks between Moscow and Washington.

The Council would lead Syria for nine months in the run-up to the transitional phase that would lay the groundwork for parliamentary and presidential elections.

Two military men have been named as potential leaders of the council. The first, Manaf Tlass, 54, defected from the Syrian army in mid-2012 and now lives in Paris. The second, Ali Habib, 77, a former defence minister, stepped down from his position in 2011 and also now lives in Paris.

Tlass is someone that all Syrians and the international community can agree on. A Sunni Muslim, he broke with the regime over the use of force against the people, but he also has extensive ties with senior Syrian Alawite officers and enjoys their respect and trust.

Known as a secularist, he rejects discrimination on the basis of sectarian belonging. He is likely to be endorsed by both opposition officers and officers still with the regime who reject the military solution imposed by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and are searching for a military commander who can protect their sect in the event of regime change.

Tlass is also on good terms with international parties and has ties with Arab officials as well as European and American officials and military personnel. Turkey has given him special treatment, providing exceptional protection, while the US and Russia see him as a potential trump card.

He is also part of the Syrian military establishment. Sources who have worked with him say he possesses the contacts and abilities to persuade the armed opposition to join a joint Military Council and could bring the armed factions under control and dissolve the regime’s sectarian militias.

Habib is an Alawite officer who has not been involved in the bloodshed in Syria and enjoys good relations with Russian and European military personnel. He knows the Syrian military establishment inside out.

Sources close to Habib say he is one of the few people capable of rallying what remains of the Syrian military, restructuring it to protect all Syrians. He will also be able to reassure the Alawite community that it will not be subject to reprisals in the event of regime change.

Whether headed by Tlass or Habib, the idea is to form a Military Council made up of the remains of the Syrian military, estimated at some 150,000 troops, along with Free Syrian Army and armed opposition factions, estimated at some 75,000 fighters.

Together, these would form the nucleus of a national army that would maintain a ceasefire across Syria, besiege the Islamist factions that refuse to join the national army, fight the Islamic State (IS) group and the Al-Qaeda affiliate of the Al-Nusrah Front, and expel all foreign fighters from the country.

The council would receive military and logistical support from the international community and would oversee the transitional phase. It would supervise the implementation of decisions made by the transitional government.

Tlass is distinguished from Habib by his younger age and the fact that he is accepted by both the regime and opposition. Habib has the advantage of long experience and is backed by the regime and the Alawite community, even if the opposition is uneasy about him because it rejects the notion of an Alawite officer leading the proposed Military Council.

Both the opposition and the regime agree on the need to preserve state institutions, but they differ when it comes to restructuring the army and security services.

The regime insists that the army and security apparatus is non-negotiable and wants to keep it in the president’s hands during any transitional phase. This is unacceptable to the opposition, which says that if kept in the president’s hands the apparatus would be a sword hanging over the necks of all.

Many Syrians believe the creation of a joint Military Council with representatives from the regular army and opposition factions offers a way out from the failed political process, given the lack of basic common ground between the regime and the opposition, the dead end of the negotiations, and the yawning gulf between regime and opposition demands.

But some opposition forces reject the idea of the Military Council leading the transitional phase. Instead, they seek the formation of a transitional governing body that would appoint the Military Council, putting the latter under its supervision. Some who favour this alternative fear the military taking control of Syria’s future.

According to a document that the opposition Higher Negotiations Committee will submit to UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, a copy of which was seen by Al-Ahram Weekly, the opposition is seeking the formation of a transitional body with full executive powers.

The body would form the Military Council and have full authority over military and security affairs. The transitional body would supervise the Council, which would oversee the ceasefire, fight terrorist organisations and reclaim Syrian territory.

This proposal may be unworkable, however. The negotiations that could end in the appointment of a transitional governing body are currently stalled, while various regional and international forces stand behind each party.

The armed Syrian opposition is also not united, and the regime militias are not subject to the army’s authority. The many foreign fighters in Syria, including Iranians, Afghans, Iraqis, Lebanese and others, all have their own agendas.

There is also nobody capable of shepherding the political transition from the current regime to a transitional governing body. There must be a period of military rule to impose security and pave the way for a political solution, critics say.

Russian and American diplomats have been active in discussing the Council proposal, with the Russians saying they have received an offer from US President Barack Obama of joint US-Russian coordination on Syria, particularly in countering terrorist organisations.

Western diplomats have reported that the idea of the Military Council was discussed in talks between the two countries’ foreign ministers. However, some observers have doubted Russian sincerity, seeing the talks as an attempt to draw the US into agreements that will cement the status quo rather than lead to a decisive resolution.

Russia has not reached out to either of the two officers in the running to lead the Military Council, they say.

Many Syrian opposition members not affiliated with any opposition faction believe that the formation of the council could be the only way to reach a settlement in Syria. But the US and Russia must take the lead, they say.

Either Tlass or Habib could head the council. Either could reassure all parties and implement a solution acceptable to all Syrians, provided that the council does not interfere in politics and ensures a peaceful transition.

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