Vicken Cheterian

The struggle over the Syrian opposition

There is a sudden acceleration in diplomatic efforts in search of political solution to the Syrian conflict. First, there was the Vienna process, starting in October and continued through December, which succeeded in bringing together foreign ministers all the major international actors, those sponsoring various parts of the Syrian struggle: the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Turkey, Qatar, Iran and many others within the “International Syria Support Group”.  

Vienna was followed by the December 8 Riyadh meeting, which aimed at bringing unity to the Syrian opposition. Two steps are foreseen after Riyadh: a meeting in Amman, Jordan, to define the “Who’s Who” of terrorist organizations in Syria, to be followed by an international meeting to reach a cease-fire agreement, and start the political transition aiming to guide Syria out of the conflict.

Is the intensity of the diplomatic activities a sign that we are finally approaching a solution to the Syrian conflict? After long being ignored by the international political powers, suddenly it took a new urgency after the November 13 Paris massacre perpetrated by jihadi militants. ISIS defied France, and French President Hollande announced, “France will destroy ISIS”. There seems to be a consensus in Europe that no effective fight against ISIS is possible without bringing a solution to the Syrian suffering. 

Since the first major effort to find peaceful solution to Syria, the Geneva I conference in 2012, the issue of Asad leaving power has been a major obstacle. Yet, a second problem soon emerged: who represents the Syrian opposition? In Geneva II, held in early 2014, it became obvious that the Istanbul based opposition did not enjoy the support of the fighting forces on the ground. Those who support the Asad regime used the division and weakness of the opposition as an argument. They argued that the opposition did not represent the fighting forces, and that further weakening of Asad regime would bring about the collapse of the state institutions, and therefore profit extremist and terrorist organizations such as ISIS.

The Riyadh conference aimed to reply to such accusations by showing unity of political forces within the Syrian opposition. From this perspective the meeting in Riyadh marked progress: 116 representatives of the Syrian opposition met, ranging from Khaled Khoja, the head of the Turkey-supported National Coalition, to Louay Hussein of “Building the Syrian State” who was long considered to represent the “internal opposition”. Next to them there were fifteen representatives of fighting groups, included groups such as Ahrar al-Sham (supported by Turkey) and Jaysh ul-Islam (supported by Saudi Arabia). In the past, fighting formations had rejected to have only fifteen chairs on the opposition table, asking for higher representation. But the joint efforts of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the main sponsors of the fighting groups, had succeeded to bring the fighters to join the new expression of unity of Syrian opposition.

Equally interesting is to see those who were absent from the Riyadh meeting. First there was no ISIS there, everyone agrees that ISIS is a “terrorist” group and should be fought. There was also no representation of al-Nusra, al-Qada’s branch in Syria. This is more problematic. According to a source within the Syrian opposition, ISIS has shallow roots in Syria, as the overwhelming number of its fighters is foreign jihadis, while Syrians make only 20% to 30%, and occupy subaltern positions. The situation is different with al-Nusra, which is predominantly composed by Syrians including its leadership. Moreover, al-Nusra has close relation with some major armed opposition groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham. 

Various Syrian opposition groups and foreign states that support them, had tried to convince al-Nusra to formally renounce its allegiance to al-Qaeda. Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the leader of al-Nusra rejected both cease-fire with the regime forces, rejected the political leadership of the Syrian Coalition, and refused to break his relationship with al-Qaeda. Julani also addressed bitter criticism to opposition fighters who took part in the Riyadh meeting. How long will the cohabitation continue in the field between al-Nusra on the one hand and Ahrar al-Sham on the other, before the explosion?

The debate on “who is the Syrian opposition” continues. The Russian Foreign Minister protested on Riyadh meeting, saying in a press conference: “We cannot accept the attempt by the group which met in Riyadh to assign itself the right to speak on behalf of the entire Syrian opposition." Moscow is unhappy to see the exclusion of the Moscow based Qadri Jamil (a former minister in Bashar’s regime), but more seriously of Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union leader Saleh Muslim excluded from Riyadh because of Turkey veto. There is equally divergence on who should be on the “terrorist” list: while Russia insists that Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh ul-Islam should be considered, Turkey insists that PKK-related Kurdish Democratic Union should be considered “terrorist.”

In Vienna, the negotiators had ironically announced: “only the Syrian people can decide the fate of Syria.” Yet, after four years of criminal war with 250’000 killed, the international political class is not only unclear at what point to get rid of the Syrian dictator, but equally vague who should be come to power after him.