|The Syrian Constellation before the Geneva 2 Peace Talks|
* This report is based on telephone conversations with members of the Syrian opposition.
A U.S.-Russian Agreement
Geneva 2, the international peace conference on the future of Syria, began on January 22, 2014, in Montreux, Switzerland. Sources in the Syrian opposition say the conference has come about because of agreement between the United States and Russia that the main danger posed by the situation in Syria is that of al-Qaeda, and that the course of events should be steered in order to obviate this danger.
This inter-bloc agreement has put most of the Syrian opposition under great pressure. They see a danger that the two powers will meanwhile prefer to leave Assad in place since, if the choice is between him and al-Qaeda, then Assad is the better option.
The problem is that the opposition is very fragmented and the two powers can force it to accept their dictates. On the issue of Geneva 2, there indeed is such a dictate. Whereas, at first, the Syrian opposition refused to participate in the conference with Assad loyalists, after heavy pressure that included American threats to cease assistance to them, much of the Syrian opposition acceded to the two powers’ demand that they attend.
Who’s Who in the Syrian Opposition
What elements make up the Syrian opposition, what do they seek, and who stands behind them?
First, the Geneva conference will not represent the fighters on the battlefield; neither the different al-Qaeda groups nor the Free Syrian Army will be in attendance. Al-Qaeda will not be there because the talks are aimed at counteracting it, and in any case al-Qaeda does not ordinarily take part in gatherings of this kind. As for the Free Syrian Army and its commander Salim Idris, they still are not prepared to sit in the same room with Assad’s loyalists, though there are reports of enormous pressure on Idris to attend.
Basically, however, the talks will be attended by parties that are not active on the Syrian battlefield. Who are they?
One large body, known as the National Coalition of Syrian and Regional Forces (also called the Syrian National Coalition), will be representing the opposition that is based outside of Syria. It is headed by Ahmed al-Jarba, a scion of the leading families of the large Shammar Bedouin tribe, which migrates among Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, and is considered pro-Saudi. Saudi Arabia indeed supports this organization.
Another group within the “coalition” is the representative body of the Syrian opposition before the “coalition” was formed. Called the Syrian National Council (SNC), it includes the Muslim Brotherhood and pan-Arab nationalists and is supported by Turkey and Qatar. Although it is formally within the “coalition” framework, the competition between Qatar and Saudi Arabia influences its relations with the coalition. All this was evident when decisions had to be made on whether to attend Geneva 2. After al-Jarba announced that he would go, his rivals in the SNC declared that they would not. The reasons for al-Jarba’s decision are not clear. Whereas one would have expected that, given the Saudis’ anger at Washington, the pro-Saudi faction would try to impede the conference, the opposite is what happened. Sources in the Syrian opposition said the Saudis did not want to bring tensions with the United States out in the open, and perhaps also did not want to be associated with al-Qaeda; instead the talks could always be undermined from within.
Russia, too, has its favored groups, and there is no surprise in the fact that they agreed to attend. These groups are old leftist factions that were part of the Syrian Ba’ath party. Syrian opposition sources point to the “Internal Opposition Group” headed by Kadri Jamil and Ali Haidar, two veteran Ba’athists who abandoned Assad. Alongside them is another group of veteran Arab nationalists headed by Haitham Mana’a and Hassan Abd al-Azim, called the “Coordinated Administration,” an array of coordinating committees for the rebels in the field. This group maintains its independence and does not receive aid from any party; it opposes Assad and will not attend Geneva 2.
The powers’ need to convene the Geneva 2 conference stemmed primarily from the failure of the Free Syrian Army under General Idris to defeat Assad’s army and bring about regime change. Instead, the different al-Qaeda organizations have now prevailed in the local arena, and not long ago they handed Idris a defeat near Aleppo, taking over his main arms depot. The Free Syrian Army is also supported by Turkey and Qatar.
Al-Qaeda Forces in Syria
Who are the al-Qaeda forces operating in Syria? There are about forty groups with numerous names, but two are playing the main role on the ground. One is the Al-Nusra group led by Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani; the other is “Daash” – the Islamic State of Iraq and Ash-Sham (the Levant), also called ISIS. Al-Nusra is made up of Syrian and Jordanian mujahideen, while the Syria and Iraq group has an Iraqi leadership.
Ironically, the success of the Salafi groups has worked in Assad’s favor. He claimed from the start that he was not dealing with a rebellion but with “terror,” and the al-Qaeda groups’ successes against the Syrian army and the Free Syrian Army helped Russia convince the United States that, at least for the time being, Assad should be left standing. The result is that Assad’s loyalists will be in attendance at the conference.
The opposition groups claim, however, that at least the ISIS organization is actually in league with Assad. They say the al-Qaeda fighters in this group were originally Syrian intelligence agents who were infiltrated into Iraq to operate against U.S. forces there, and after the revolt in Syria erupted, Assad’s intelligence service implanted them among the rebels as a way of proving that the revolt is nothing more than terror. These al-Qaeda groups have also acted against the Free Syrian Army and diverted it from the anti-Assad struggle.
The Kurds of Syria
The Kurds of Syria are a special case. They, too, are fragmented into many groups; among the leading ones is the Democratic Union Party (PYD). A radical-left organization that is a twin sister of the Turkish PKK, it is close to Assad’s Ba’ath regime and loyal to it. The Syrian army was able to withdraw from Kurdish areas and concentrate its forces against the rebels because the PYD managed Kurdish affairs on Syria’s behalf. There are now reports that under the PYD’s “administrative autonomy,” pictures of Assad have again appeared in the streets.
The PYD is opposed by the Yakiti party, which is close to Kurdnas – a large coalition of Kurdish parties that triggered the Kurdish revolt against Assad in the previous century. In contrast to the PYD’s radical leftism, Yakiti and Kurdnas are pro-Western parties that advocate a federal regime in Syria. The space between the PYD, at one end, and Yakiti and Kurdnas, at the other, is filled by numerous other parties. These, however, were concocted by Syrian intelligence as a means of fragmenting the Kurds. One “real” group that is not an invention of Syrian intelligence is the Azadi party.
All the Kurdish parties are demanding autonomy within the framework of the Syrian state. The difference between them and the Sunni parties (the Muslim Brotherhood, former Ba’athists, Arab nationalists) is that, whereas the Kurdish groups call for a decentralized regime of autonomous districts for the ethnic communities and minorities, most of the Sunnis favor retaining the centralized regime in Damascus.
Whereas the Kurds demanded to come to Geneva 2 as a separate delegation, the United States insisted that they attend as part of the “coalition.” The Kurds refused and will not be at Geneva. They see the U.S. refusal to recognize their separate delegation as stemming from its support for a centralized Syrian regime even after Assad’s departure.
If the Syrian opposition has trouble accepting the presence of Assad loyalists at the peace conference, it cannot accept an Iranian presence at all. They say their real opponent on the Syrian battlefield is the Iranian army, and they view Iran as an invading country that is also deploying Hizbullah against them. Saudi Arabia, too, can barely tolerate the Assad loyalists and rejects any Iranian role at the conference altogether.
The Question of Assad’s Future
Regarding Assad’s future, while the first Geneva peace conference in June 2012 came up with a plan for a temporary government and elections for a new president, Assad insisted on his right to run in these elections. Geneva 2, as well, will likely propose a temporary government and elections while offering Assad an honorable departure from political life in return for his physical survival. Whether such elections can be held, however, is in doubt since forces on the ground will reject any such plan.
Meanwhile, there are initial signs of a deal taking shape outside the framework of the conference, in which Iran, Russia, and the United States would agree on a new president while forcing Assad to acquiesce. But such an initiative – if it takes shape at all – will have to wait until Assad hands over all his chemical weapons.
Israel must pay attention to two matters. First, a Middle Eastern inter-bloc agreement may at some stage include the Palestinian issue; Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will fly to Moscow to clarify this option with the Russians. Israel must prepare for a scenario where a new central government is established in Damascus and the powers begin to pressure Israel to give up the Golan Heights in order to “strengthen” the new Syrian government.
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