Friday,16 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)
Friday,16 November, 2018
Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Wooing Washington?

The Syrian opposition could further tip the scales in Russia’s favour in the conflict in the country if the US does not show it more support, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus


Wooing Washington?
Wooing Washington?

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Russia endured several political losses on the Syrian front last week. Under a barrage of criticism, it was forced to change the name of a conference it was planning to hold at Hmaimim entitled the “Peoples of Syria” Conference. The name angered Syrians of many political and ideological stripes because they viewed it as a way of dividing up the population ahead of carving up the country.

Russia quickly decided to change the name to the “Syrian National Dialogue” Conference, but this did little to change minds about the event. The opposition said it would not have confidence in any event taking place in areas under the control of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and that it would not participate without knowing the goal or agenda of the conference.

European states also opposed the conference, planned to take place at a Russian military base in Syria, as it implied that they would be pressured to accept what the conference’s Russian sponsor dictated.

Moscow decided to change the venue to the Russian city of Sochi and to invite some 1,000 opposition figures. Invitations were sent to 33 Syrian political parties and organisations, more than half of them from the opposition, Russia said.

However, in reality the opposition accounted for no more than ten per cent of the “opposition” invitees. About 70 per cent of those invited work inside Syria under the auspices of the Syrian authorities and are not recognised by the rest of the political and military opposition.

Changing the venue also made little difference in convincing the opposition to attend. Opposition figures vowed to boycott the conference, saying that it served the interests of the Syrian regime and Russia. There were suspicions that Russia wants to divide the Syrian people, create new opposition entities that are not genuine or do not share the goals of freedom and political change, and buoy up the Syrian regime with new ideas since all else has apparently failed.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the goal of the gathering was to increase the number of stakeholders in solving the Syrian crisis by including representatives from different religious and ethnic groups and clans.

He said the purpose was to bring together all components of Syrian society, launch political reforms, and form a constitutional body to draft a new constitution and hold parliamentary and presidential elections under UN supervision based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

But Russia seemed to have rushed into the conference without serious research or analysis of possible gains or losses and without taking into account the objections of the opposition and the other countries involved. These eventually forced Moscow to postpone the conference indefinitely, though without admitting its failure.

Meanwhile, the opposition continued to attend the seventh round of the Astana Talks on Syria in Kazakhstan, which as expected did not result in any tangible results. The Russians also focused on convincing the participating military opposition groups to go to Sochi, but with little success.

The Syrian opposition has been trying to attract the attention of the US in an attempt to gain US patronage and shed its Russian interlocutors. A meeting was held in Washington last week attended by Syrian opposition politicians, academics and businessmen with the aim of forming a Syrian lobby in the US that would connect with American political and civic institutions.

However, the outcome of the meeting was modest, and the Russians ignored it because it did not threaten their plans.

While the opposition has been working to reverse its weak position on the ground in Syria, militias of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) took control of Raqqa thanks to intense US air strikes that destroyed almost 70 per cent of the city. The opposition has accused the Kurdish militias of lying about the number of Islamic State (IS) fighters inside the city and giving the US wrong coordinates leading to the killing of many civilians.

The military progress by the Kurds has started to concern the Syrian opposition as well as the regime. The Kurds want to cleanse the area and apply a scorched-earth policy erasing entire Arab villages from existence, changing the demography, and transporting Kurdish fighters from Turkey and Iran to Syria.

They refuse to cooperate with either side and rely on US support. The opposition took these concerns to Washington in the hope of showing the US administration that relying on non-Arab militias to control northern Syria is a mistake and poses a threat to the region in the short and medium term.

But Washington seems uninterested in making any changes for the time being and is comfortable in relying on the Kurdish militias instead of sending its own ground troops into Syria.

While rejecting Russia and seeking to draw closer to the US, the opposition has also made mistakes, such as postponing the Riyadh 2 Meeting, which aimed to expand the Higher Commission for Negotiations (HCN) to include more opposition representation.

The opposition said it was willing to form a new negotiating team for the next talks based on expanding the HCN and adding further nationalist figures, especially from inside Syria, as well as more women. It added that it will continue to insist on holding accountable those accused of committing war crimes in Syria, most notably Bashar Al-Assad himself.

Pressure from Russia has continued to ensure the existence of the Moscow and Cairo platforms in the HCN, while the US continues to ignore the Syrian opposition. This means the opposition could succumb to Russian pressure and abandon its insistence on Al-Assad stepping down even after the transition phase.

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