Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1379, (1 -7 February 2018)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1379, (1 -7 February 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Syrian opposition defies Moscow

The Syrian opposition boycotted the Russian-sponsored Sochi Conference on the future of the country, effectively dooming it to fail, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus


Syrian opposition defies Moscow
Syrian opposition defies Moscow

Key Syrian opposition figures have taken a monumental political decision by refusing to attend the National Syrian Dialogue Conference in Sochi, which opened on Tuesday. Russia had invited more than 1,500 delegates with a view to forcing the opposition to agree to a solution to the crisis in Syria that did not meet the bare minimum of its demands.

The aim of the conference was to force the opposition to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to discuss amendments to the country’s constitution, and thus participate in rehabilitating the incumbent regime without demanding the overhaul of its security and military institutions.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov read out a statement from Russian President Vladimir Putin, during the opening, saying that the conditions were ripe for Syria to turn “a tragic page” in its history.

Some delegates then stood up and began heckling him, accusing Moscow of killing civilians in Syria with airstrikes.

The Sochi gathering has also been overshadowed by reports of intense clashes that erupted on a strategic hilltop in north-western Syria as Kurdish forces tried to enter the area a day after it was captured by Turkish troops.

The Sochi Conference was always unlikely to call for regime change or for the prosecution of those responsible for war crimes, according to statements leaked before it started.

One group of delegates, which included members of the armed opposition who had flown in from Turkey, refused to leave Sochi Airport until Syrian government flags and emblems had been removed.

The refusal of the opposition Higher Negotiations Committee to attend the Sochi Conference is a setback for Russia and in particular for Putin who had personally invested in holding the conference and facilitated preparations for it.

However, Russian officials have complained about attempts to sabotage the conference, which was originally billed as a two-day event, but was reduced to one at the last minute.

The Russian Ministry of Defence had been assigned to oversee the conference in order to ensure that it turned out as planned and deliver the political victory that Putin needs ahead of this year’s presidential elections in Russia.

However, the opposition refused Russian attempts to lure them to Sochi and even Russia’s invitation of members of the negotiating team to Moscow. Opposition members told the Russians that they wanted a political transition in Syria based on the 2012 Geneva Declaration and constitutional and electoral processes that would follow the formation of an interim ruling body with full executive powers, as stated in the Geneva Declaration and accepted by the UN.

This is the first time the Negotiations Committee has taken a stance that reflects the views of all the opposition blocs. It is also the first time that the opposition has stood up to Russia, in effect ending Russian attempts to impose a solution in Syria that does not serve those opposed to the regime and contradicts the goals of the revolution.

Meanwhile, the latest round of the Geneva Conference on Syria, held in the Austrian capital Vienna, came to a close. The conference had been undermined by the Syrian regime, which refused to attend or engage with UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura in an attempt to bolster the rival Sochi Conference and undermine the legitimacy of the Geneva Declaration.

Countries including the US, UK and France have not attended because they say the Syrian government is refusing to properly engage with the opposition.

Complying with the Geneva Declaration would mean stripping Al-Assad of his power, though leaving him in office in a ceremonial manner for a short period. It would automatically mean the end of the regime and its security system, submitting it to the authority of the new interim body.

The decision by the opposition to boycott the Sochi Conference despite Russian and regional pressure coincided with the US announcement of a new strategy in Syria that sends clear messages to Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime that they are not the only ones involved in the crisis and that the US will not tolerate their permanent control.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared in January that the US would remain in Syria militarily until further notice, or until the Syrian people chose a new government having international credibility. Tillerson said this served US national security, and he rejected any Iranian presence in Syria.

 The departure of Al-Assad as part of a UN-led peace process would create the conditions for permanent peace, and free and fair elections with the participation of those who had fled the conflict would naturally lead to the departure of Al-Assad and his family from power, Tillerson said.

The US announcement will have impacted on the decision of the opposition to refuse the Russian invitation to attend the Sochi Conference, empowering some parties and weakening others even before Washington applies any steps in carrying out its strategy. The political opposition in Syria has begun to retake the initiative, and the military opposition has sought to counter regime violations in the de-escalation and ceasefire zones.

The US strategy includes the formation of a 30,000-strong military force in north-east Syria made up of the Democratic Syria Forces, the military wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, and a handful of Arab Syrians to give the impression of diversity.

This force is to be assisted by more than 2,000 US military experts in Syria and operate from eight US military bases. They are the nucleus of a US strike force that could eventually be more powerful than the Russian presence in Syria, especially in view of the US military bases in the region, including in neighbouring Jordan, and the strong Arab support for the move, especially from Saudi Arabia.

The US military presence does not mean Washington intends to confront Russia militarily in Syria, but the US has other tools, including political and economic pressure, that are more powerful than military force alone. More importantly, the US strategy implies ending Russia’s monopoly in Syria and curbing its current and future role.

Over the past two years, the US has allowed Russia a free hand in Syria as long as the US is not marginalised, Israel’s security is guaranteed, and the balance of power is maintained until a political solution is reached to the satisfaction of the international and regional powers.

Russia, however, has tried to subvert the political solution agreed on at the first Geneva Conference in 2012. It has concocted the Moscow meetings, then the Astana talks, and most recently the Sochi Conference, with the aim of creating alternative political options for Syria than those approved by the UN.

Washington has clearly felt it is time to call a halt and launch a new strategy that more clearly serves US interests.

Russia has failed in its handling of the Syrian conflict for four main reasons. First, it has persisted in supporting the Syrian regime at the expense of the opposition and brutally targeted the latter; second, it has decided to put all its eggs in the Al-Assad basket; third, it has acted arrogantly, believing it had achieved a new status in the Middle East; and fourth, it has underestimated the role of Iran and failed to diminish Tehran’s intervention as the US wishes.

The new US strategy on Syria was announced after a meeting in Washington of representatives from France, Britain, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, a group of influential international and regional players that balances Russia’s actions and counters the Russia-Iran-Turkey axis. It includes two Arab countries that could be key players in bolstering the Geneva track.

The new US strategy will need a defined timeline if it is to be effective and not just a diplomatic move after the collapse of the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria. It will need to be more than simply an expression of the US desire to restore the political balance in Syria after a seven-year hiatus.

Observers believe, however, that developments in Syria since the start of the new year indicate that the wheels of the new US strategy have started to turn, and soon there will be more powerful indicators that could really change the Syrian conflict.

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