Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1159, (1 - 7 August 2013)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1159, (1 - 7 August 2013)

Ahram Weekly

No-gun diplomacy

Syrian opposition leaders have been touring Europe and America demanding weapons, but they have received political sympathy instead, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

The newly elected leaders of the opposition National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF) have been shuttling between Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, France, and the US, meeting in New York with representatives of the UN Security Council.

The aim of the shuttle missions has been to try to persuade western nations to send weapons to the armed Syrian opposition, in order that it can stand up more effectively to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and enforce a political deal to its liking.

However, the response was more lukewarm than what had been hoped for. France and the US both showed political sympathy, but their support fell short of providing the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) with weapons.

French and US officials told the NCSROF leaders that they would continue to receive humanitarian and logistical supplies and other sorts of so-called non-lethal aid, but no weapons.

In Paris, NCSROF leader Ahmed Al-Jarba said that the top priority for the opposition was to stop the bloodbath in Syria, discontinue the destruction, protect civilians, and maintain the country’s remaining infrastructure. But the achievement of these goals could not take place without the opposition receiving the weapons it needed, he said.

French President François Hollande listened carefully to the Syrian demands, but said that France would continue to help the Syrian people by humanitarian and political means but would not be sending weapons.

In New York, the NCSROF delegation said that the situation in Syria was “desperate” and urged the US to expedite the arming of the opposition.

The delegation also held an informal meeting with members of the UN Security Council, in which it urged the international powers to pressure Al-Assad into accepting the formation of a transitional government with full executive powers in which he would not take part.

The NCSROF also agreed to participate in the planned Geneva Conference on Syria, also known as Geneva II, which Russia and the US proposed to organise a few months ago. The NCSROF’s only condition was that Al-Assad should cease to use heavy weapons in the fighting ahead of the Conference if the regime was to take part.

The NCSROF told UN Security Council members that the opposition was committed to Syria’s unity, democracy, and pluralism.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, not wanting his country to get too involved in the fighting in Syria, described the meeting as “fruitful” but ignored the requests for weapons. Kerry also said that the Syrian opposition should feel free to state its conditions before the opening of the Geneva Conference.

The main condition of the NCSROF thus far has been that Geneva II should result in the formation of an interim government that has full political and military powers. The NCSROF has also pleaded with Russia to discontinue its political and military support for the Syrian regime, in order to prevent it from committing further atrocities.

NCSROF leaders also hinted that they could obtain weapons from non-European and non-US sources. They voiced the hope that their fighters would be able to reverse their losses in battle soon.

Russia welcomed the NCSROF decision to attend the Geneva II Conference, but voiced its disapproval of the terms the opposition had set for its participation.

The NCSROF has in the past insisted that Al-Assad’s ouster is a condition for any political settlement. It has also demanded that a ceasefire be declared before the talks start. Having now dropped both these conditions, it is now asking for an interim government to be set up with full powers.

NCSROF delegate Borhan Ghalyun said that the aim of the opposition tour had been to prove that the Syrian opposition was credible and was capable of fulfilling its responsibilities. The NCSROF was willing to seek a political solution, but if this failed the only option would be military confrontation, he said.

According to Ghalyun, the Syrian regime would try to undermine the conference, as it has done in the past. Damascus had promised to stop using heavy weapons against the opposition forces, but then had carried on doing so, he said. Al-Assad had also refused to release prisoners or to form a fully-empowered interim government.

Even within the NCSROF, there has been dissent over the current overtures. Kamal Al-Labwani, a member of the NCSROF political committee, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the opposition could not go to Geneva without the proper guarantees.

“We cannot agree to [attending] Geneva II unless military parity is achieved. We need to have adequate weaponry in terms of quantity and quality,” he said.

Al-Labwani said that Geneva II must focus on “transferring power to the people, who should decide freely who rules the country and how”. He also urged the trials for all those responsible for “acts of killing and destruction” during the country’s civil conflict.

Other members of the Syrian opposition also had reservations about the NCSROF’s recent performance. The Damascus Declaration Rally for Democratic Change (DDRDC), a member of the NCSROF, urged the formation of a central political and military command to oversee the Revolution.

The DDRDC blamed the current problems on the “barbarism” of the regime and the “selfishness” of the NCSROF members. The FSA said that it could not attend the Geneva II Conference unless the regime and its supporters abandoned power.

FSA spokesman Louay Al-Miqdad, who attended the New York meetings, told the Weekly that “neither the NCSROF nor anyone in Syria will go to Geneva II without preconditions.”

The FSA was ready to accept any political solution that involved the removal of the regime, he said, adding that “we will continue to fight the regime, not because we love to fight, but because we want to create a just and free democratic country.”

Faeq Al-Mir, a leading figure in the leftist Syrian People’s Party, said that the NCSROF was “ineffective” and incapable of influencing the course of the conflict.

Speaking to the Weekly, Al-Mir said that the best way to end the conflict would be to arm the opposition. But this, he added, was “not the only way”.

According to Al-Mir, no political solution would be possible unless the balance of power was reversed. “Only this will stop the killing and guarantee the departure of Al-Assad and his associates,” he said.

Analysts say that there is some truth in what Al-Mir and other critics of the NCSROF have been saying. The NCSROF has little influence over most fighting groups, such analysts say, and it has tended to place too much emphasis on media appearances. Over the past two years, the NCSROF has also turned down all proposals for a political solution.

The NCSROF’s main aim has been to ask foreign powers for weapons, and now even this quest has been rebuffed. It is now willing to consider a political solution, but it has been unwilling to clarify the scope of this solution. Differences within the NCSROF are also likely to surface once more in the near future.

The disarray of the armed opposition in Syria is no secret, and the FSA’s attempts to bring all the anti-regime forces under its umbrella have only been successful in 30 per cent of cases.

It is also clear that the Syrian regime is averse to any solution, political or otherwise, that threatens or diminishes its current privileges.

For any political solution to succeed, it should be based on a clear programme. It should have a well-thought-out timetable leading to a pluralistic political system, and it should be acceptable to regional and world powers.

Otherwise, any political deal will be meaningless.

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