Any settlement in Geneva, which excludes any member of Syria’s multi-faceted opposition, will likely prove worthless
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Speaking to the Guardian newspaper on Friday, Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister, Qadri Jamil, suggested that the regime might call for a ceasefire at the — as yet unscheduled — Geneva 2 conference.
Jamil was recruited to the government from the ranks of the secular opposition last year in a bid to rehabilitate the image of the Bashar Al Assad regime. That Jamil was tasked with delivering this news suggests a diplomatic sub-text from the regime and reflects the new reality on the ground, where a third party to this war has emerged — the international jihadist movement.
From the outset, a major obstacle to a negotiated, political settlement in Syria has been the fragmented nature of the opposition and its consequential inability to represent itself or control events on the ground. The problem has been compounded by a summer ‘surge’ of internecine battles between the ever-growing contingent of international jihadists and their ostensible comrades-in-arms, the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
According to a report this week from Jane’s, the defence and security analysts, jihadists and hard-line Islamic extremists now account for more than 50 per cent of the 100,000 armed men involved in the Syrian resistance movement. Reporters on the ground in Syria confirm that the latest Al Qaida affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS), is rapidly emerging as the most feared, efficient and dominant player among the opposition. Now numbering around 10,000 — many of them foreigners who entered Syria via Turkey or through the porous border with Iraq — the ISIS arrived with an opportunistic strategy. In the past few months, they have seized control of the oilfields round Raqqah — which the FSA had taken in January 2013 — assassinated “traitors”, including FSA commander Kamal Hamami, and battled “apostate” FSA units for control of several towns. Last week, they overcame the ‘Northern Storm’ brigade to take Azaz, a key strategic town near the Turkish border, where they have established a Sharia court.
The civil war in Syria has produced the environment that Al Qaida thrives in — chaos and destruction. While burgeoning sectarian hatred will ensure that ISIS will continue to seek the demise of Alawites (a Shiite sub-sect), it will be a mistake to imagine that this is its only intention in Syria. The ultimate goal of ISIS is to establish an Islamic emirate in Iraq and Syria, thereby controlling the heart of the Middle East.
Jane’s analysts suggest that the armed opposition now consists of around 1,000 different, fractured — and sometimes competing — brigades.
Meanwhile, on the political and diplomatic front, the Syrian opposition, largely in exile in Istanbul, has been riven by in-fighting for three years. At the end of last year, the opposition umbrella, the Syrian National Council (SNC) enjoyed the support of 114 nations, calling themselves the ‘Friends of Syria’ and the SNC took the national seat at the Arab League summit in Doha. Just six months later, however, the number of ‘Friends’ had dropped to less than a dozen, reflecting widespread disillusionment with the ability of the SNC to form a national unity interim government or to quash the extremists. How then, in the search for peace in Syria, can the SNC alone discuss disarmament or send a representative delegation to the much talked-about Geneva 2 conference? And more importantly, how can such a team of politicians or diplomats, however well qualified, guarantee that they can control or direct actors on the ground — especially the ISIS?
Paradoxically, the secular opposition has been weakened by the Russia-US initiative.
First, militarily. The FSA will have gained some leverage, and possibly taken back some of its lost ground, under cover of US air strikes. Second, diplomatically. SNC president Ahmad Jarba told a press conference last week that Al Assad’s agreement to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was a diplomatic victory for the regime. As he put it, the deal suggested that Al Assad could continue to kill thousands of Syrians with heavy weapons, under cover of his agreement not to use chemical weapons. As a result, it is quite possible that ‘moderate’ opposition fighters, tasting humiliation, will embrace extremism and join the more ‘successful’ ISIS. Jamil’s message to the international community contains a bid, by the regime, to quash the ascendance of the extremists by tentatively holding out a (bloodied) hand of friendship to the secular opposition. The regime and the secular opposition now have common ground: ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’. This new mood for a diplomatic solution offers a window of opportunity that should not be missed. The Syrian people have surely suffered enough, but for negotiations to be realistic, the opposition has to create a united, inclusive front.
Last week, the SNC’s General Assembly acknowledged the necessity to involve all Syrian minorities in negotiations over a post-Al Assad state, which is a step in the right direction.
However, the SNC continues to exclude significant groups such as the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change Abroad, headed by Haitham Manna and, of course, the Islamists who themselves have to learn from the experiences of their confreres in Tunisia and Egypt and adapt to democratic imperatives.
A settlement in Geneva, which excludes any member of Syria’s multi-faceted opposition, will likely prove worthless. How to bring them to the table is the greatest challenge ahead.
Abdel Bari Atwan is the former editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. His latest book is After Bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation.