Published at NOW Lebanon.
So the Syrian opposition can unite. Foreign powers have been the major cause of rebel discord. Previous rebel unity initiatives like the Joint Command were pulled apart by the competition between the insurgency’s sponsors—Saudi Arabia and Qatar primarily—and the last rebel umbrella group, the Supreme Military Council, which was identified with Western power, collapsed after President Barack Obama decided not to punish Bashar al-Assad for the massive chemical weapons attack on the population of Ghouta. But under Saudi auspices, an opposition “team” was announced on December 10 after a three-day conference in Riyadh, which includes the political and military opposition and groups with varying ideologies and patrons. This is an achievement. Unfortunately, this team’s task is an impossible one: intended to partake in the Vienna process begun in October, ostensibly to negotiate an end to the war, Syria is not, at present, in a condition where a political agreement can be made and implemented, not least because the Assad regime and its supporters in Iran and Russia have doubled down, and the opposition continues to receive insufficient support to pressure the regime enough to force an agreement.
The Riyadh conference selected a thirty-three-man High Commission, consisting of:
- Eleven armed opposition groups, including Ahrar a-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, and Free Syrian Army (FSA)-branded groups
- Nine members of ETILAF (The Syrian National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces), the political body recognized by some governments as the representative of the Syrian people
- Eight independent political oppositionists, who tend to be affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood
- Five members of the National Co-ordination Body (NCB), a Damascus-based, regime-tolerated group that has formally called for the regime’s ouster but emphasizes non-violence
While having armed rebel groups as only a third of the negotiating team does not reflect the true balance of power, it was nonetheless a breakthrough in recognizing the reality that they will have to be dealt with—or so it seemed. Soon the regime had rejected all negotiation with armed groups, which it calls “terrorists,” and Ahrar a-Sham had withdrawn from the negotiating team.
The inclusion of Ahrar a-Sham was the biggest story of the Riyadh conference. Ahrar never accepted the FSA label and has always been an ideologically-driven, hardline Salafist group that acted as a step between the Syrian Islamists and globalist jihadi-Salafism, with which some of its leaders have links. Indeed, some of Ahrar’s leaders are (or were) al-Qaeda members, and Ahrar fights in close alliance with Jabhat an-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch. Ahrar’s inclusion in the conference, therefore, was a break in usual protocol of treating it as an irreconcilable—this had been Saudi practice, not just Western practice, not least because Ahrar is backed by Qatar and Turkey. The Russian intervention in Syria has changed opposition and Saudi calculations, prioritizing unity.
The Saudis’ invitation to Ahrar was, among other things, a forceful pushback against the attempt to have Ahrar designated as a terrorist organization. The communiqué from the November 15 International Syria Support Group—the co-ordinating mechanism for the Vienna process, which includes America and her allies plus Russia and Iran—said that a “common understanding of groups and individuals for possible determination as terrorists” was to be drawn up, and Moscow and Tehran were pressing hard to have Ahrar included on the list. That has now been blocked.
There has been a vigorous effort to “mainstream” Ahrar by its backers, and there is such a trend within Ahrar. It has even been said that in the wake of the mysterious explosion that eradicated Ahrar’s leadership in September 2014, the more moderate sections of Ahrar, grouped around the political bureau, which had been little more than a “front office” for international donors, had become ascendant. Not ascendant enough, evidently. In Riyadh, Ahrar’s Foreign Affairs Director, Labib an-Nahhas, the English-speaking leader of the mainstreamists, signed the final statement, but was taken unawares by a statement from inside Syria in which Ahrar rejected the statement.
Ahrar has in public bitterly contested the inclusion in the conference of what most Syrians call the “fake opposition,” meaning the NCB and the Building the Syrian State movement, groups based in regime-held areas that are almost certainly infiltrated by, if they aren’t outright fronts for, Assad’s intelligence services. But Ahrar’s less-advertised objections are to the statement’s pluralistic and democratic character, which they felt did not “confirm the Muslim identity of our people”—an unhelpful position for the opposition, which is reaching out to minorities that the regime has cynically tried to bind to its political fortunes. Another tricky point for Ahrar was the statement’s clear rejection of foreign forces on Syrian soil. Meant to refer to the foreign jihadi-Salafists of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), and the foreign Shi’a jihadists gathered by Iran to defend Assad, Ahrar has foreign fighters and has previously made “ensur[ing] their safety” a principle of its inclusion in rebel alliances.
It is unclear whether Ahrar will, as a result of an internal rethink or under pressure from its backers, ultimately attend Vienna. Ahrar’s decision will shed some light on Ahrar’s nature, and whether it can be engaged. If Ahrar joins Nusra in rejecting Vienna, then the peace process is effectively pre-emptively aborted since Nusra and Ahrar combined are probably powerful enough to act as a spoiler to any potential agreement. But in many ways this would only hasten what is inevitable.
The opposition now has some diplomatic clout because it has a reasonably credible return address, but “as soon as negotiations in Vienna begin they will falter over the central issue: Iran and Russia will insist that Assad stays,” says Thomas Pierret, a lecturer on contemporary Islam at Edinburgh University and author of Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution. “The United States is unable to change the Iranian and Russian demands,” Pierret adds, “so will face the choice of either accepting the failure of the negotiating process they’ve invested in, or pressuring the opposition—whom the U.S. can effect—into a ‘creative solution,’ which is to say allowing Assad to stay.”
The removal of Assad and his instruments of repression is key to ending the civil war and defeating ISIS, but unless Assad is military checkmated he and his Iranian and Russian supporters will have no reason to negotiate his departure. At the present time Assad is simply too secure and there is little sign of a Western appetite to make him less so. This means the Vienna process offers many more potential costs than benefits for the opposition. For example, when the opposition holds out against Western pressure to weaken its insistence that Assad depart within a six-week negotiating period so that a political transition can begin, many will blame the opposition, rather than the regime, for intransigence.
Despite much happy-talk of the two sides moving toward a political settlement, the situation on the ground in Syria has grown more intractable in recent months. The Russian and Iranian escalation aimed at preserving the regime by eliminating the nationalist rebels, thus presenting the international community with a fait accompli—either Assad or ISIS/al-Qaeda—has convinced the regime it can win militarily. And when Nusra’s leader, Abu Muhammad al-Golani, said in his recent interview that all insurgents were committed to continuing fighting until the overthrow of the regime and the Riyadh conference was a conspiracy against the revolution, he was, allowances made for rhetorical excess, expressing a widespread view.
The hope that a ceasefire can be arranged in Syria immediately after negotiations begin on January 1 is a fantasy. Ceasefires announced in 2011 and 2012 by the United Nations ended in minutes when there was no enforcement mechanism; the situation is even worse now.
The extremists on the anti-regime side, ISIS and Nusra, are not even theoretically bound by this forthcoming ceasefire. This is a problem in itself given the power of both groups—and the fact that ISIS is also openly at war with the moderate rebels who would be bound by the ceasefire—but perhaps even more problematic is that this exception to the ceasefire for fighting terrorism opens a loophole for the regime and its supporters, who claim that all of the opposition is terrorist, even as they focus their firepower on the moderates. Russia will not provide the U.N. the means to halt by force regime violations of a ceasefire and Russia itself is likely to continue to focus its air attacks on rebel groups recognized as integral parts of this process.
Worse, the regime side doesn’t have extremists; it is extremist. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its various instruments—notably the largely-Alawite sectarian militia, the National Defence Force, which has eclipsed the regular army, and the tens of thousands of foreign Shi’a jihadists—are what sustain the regime now. The chances of these groups acceding to a ceasefire, and of the IRGC and its foreign legion withdrawing in a final agreement, seem vanishingly small.
The rebellion took an important step in Riyadh toward transforming unity of vision into unity of agency, but serious problems remain as Ahrar a-Sham, an actor with probable spoiler capacity, gives mixed signals about its intentions should this united front sign an agreement with the regime to end the war. Above this intra-rebel disharmony is the larger problem that the current balance of force militates against a political settlement in Syria. The central issue is the fate of Assad and the terror apparatus he heads. The central threat to the rebels and civilian populations outside regime-held areas is the Assad regime, and no rebels will fight alongside Assad’s regime. To unlock a rebel anti-ISIS force the threat from Assad has to be removed: only then will rebels sign on to a transitional government and turn their focus to defeating ISIS and other jihadi-Salafist terrorist groups. But neither Assad, nor his foreign supporters in Russia and Iran, have any reason at this point to accept Assad’s departure, so the war will continue and ISIS will remain.