Syrian Opposition Strategy: Negotiate in Geneva and Keep Fighting


The recent joint statement from US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov set events into motion to end the Syrian tragedy by revisiting the June 2012 Geneva Communiqué.  Despite an international consensus in favor of the Geneva plan as a reasonable approach to reach a political settlement, however, the Syrian opposition rejected it, primarily because it keeps the fate of President Bashar al-Assad ambiguous.

This ambiguity finds expression again in the Geneva II talks planned for June 12.  Kerry’s statements that Washington and Moscow have a "very similar" understanding of what was actually agreed nearly a year ago in Geneva have created speculation and fear among the opposition that the United States has shifted its stance closer to the Russian position in order to revive political talks. It seems that the US administration is eager to extricate itself from the moral dilemma of intervening in the Syria conflict by convening this conference at any cost, even at the expense of victims in Syria. If that is the case, the United States stands to lose twice:  it will concede political ground to the Russians without getting any compromise in return, while simultaneously isolating its friends in the Syrian opposition based on insincere promises from the Russians and Assad. The Syrian opposition does not wish to jeopardize its friendship with United States, and will therefore agree to a political settlement in principle, but if Assad’s removal cannot be guaranteed in advance of or by the end of the conference, the opposition risks losing its legitimacy and credibility by participating.

Syrian opposition members have discussed the matter in Cairo and Istanbul, and believe that the Geneva talks will not succeed unless the United States stands firmly by their side. Thus it is important to be clear about the opposition’s stance on these talks, which should be geared toward negotiation and not merely dialogue.

We will attend the international conference on the Syrian tragedy only with prior assurance of Assad’s departure; if he is present, the Syrian opposition will walk out. There is no alternative to the removal of this dictator, and if Assad stays in power until 2014 or beyond, it will not be with the consent of the opposition, but only by force.    

Who should represent the opposition in these proposed talks? It goes without saying the team would comprise two groups: the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) and its allies (representing the opposition outside Syria) and the Supreme Military Council (SMC) representing fighters inside Syria. Any other opposition group attending would be a de facto part of the regime’s negotiating team. Until now, the United States has been pressing the SOC to participate without preconditions.  By communicating via SMC Chairman General Salim Idris, the United States has sent the SOC a message that if it does not participate, Idris and his comrades will be invited in their place.

This is a counterproductive strategy. If Secretary Kerry convinces even a few SOC members to attend Geneva II without conditions, fighters will reject the conference. Furthermore, the tactic of trying to split the SOC and SMC is likely to fail as US military support to the Free Syrian Army is minimal at a time when they are losing ground rapidly in some areas, giving the United States little leverage.

The UN General Assembly showed how to deal with this issue this month when it adopted an historic resolution recognizing the SOC as the legal representative of the Syrian people to negotiate a transitional government.  This new mandate should embolden the SOC to insist on its strategy: final departure of Assad. The United States should not wait for the UN Security Council to authorize the implementation of this resolution. The Syrian opposition has never asked the United States to fight for its freedom, only to arm the fighters and assist them from a distance by enforcing a no-fly-zone against bare aggression by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Continued American ambivalence toward saving the Syrian people is costing the United States respect in the eyes of the political and military opposition, and its standing will only sink deeper as time passes.  

From the opposition’s point of view, additional conditions must be met in order for the Geneva talks to have any chance of success. Based on previous patterns of regime behavior, we believe Assad will not negotiate unless he is forced to do so, presumably by a change in his military calculations. One way to change his calculations would be for the Friends of Syria, led by the United States, to send strong military signals to the regime prior to the conference in order to facilitate its peaceful exit. Without such an inducement, the regime might well come to the table with unrealistic demands, intending to prolong negotiations while Assad’s forces redraw the map on the ground. This scenario will exacerbate Syrian suffering and transform what began as a peaceful uprising into an enduring sectarian war.

Senator John McCain called for a similar course of action a number of days ago: “It’s fine with me to have meeting or gathering or conference or whatever it is. But the only way that the Russians are going to be cooperative on this effort is if they believe that Assad is losing. That’s why we should act before any conference takes place…. That means a no-fly zone, that means [giving] heavy weapons to the resistance.”

If the United States supports the Syrian opposition in its strategy to remove Assad from power, the Geneva conference can provide a valuable opportunity to move forward with Syria’s transition and revitalize the mission of UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. After Assad’s fate is determined, all parties at the table can pick up the fragmented pieces of Syria’s transition and reach a lasting deal for reconstruction and reconciliation.  The conference agenda should serve as a starting point to build a new Syria with dignity, civility, and democracy.

Implementing former envoy Kofi Annan’s plan, as manifested in the June 2012 Geneva Communiqué, will be a difficult process requiring strong and sincere commitment from the United States and Russia  in order to convince both the Free Syrian Army and Assad’s army to agree to a truce and a final settlement. The SOC will insist that Assad relinquish his authority during talks on the formation of a transitional government, and this demand should be included as the primary condition of the conference agreement. He may then retreat to his village, Qardaha, or anywhere else in the interim before his formal departure, but he certainly cannot remain in the presidential palace in Damascus. Secondly, a truce must be declared immediately following the June 12 talks and a ceasefire for a period of two to three weeks is essential before the formation of a transitional government.

The opposition coalition is willing to be flexible in forming the transitional governing body, but it will insist on reserving the prime minister post and 51 percent of cabinet portfolios for its representatives. One serious compromise the SOC must make is to allow the regime to keep the defense portfolio temporarily; however, regardless of who is in the next government, the two fundamental institutions of the Assad regime, the army and the security apparatus, must be overhauled, restructured, and placed under direct control of the new government. Without this transfer, no political settlement is feasible. The new government must include only decent, well known, and experienced members of the opposition as well as the former regime (but none of its inner circle) in order to have real and complete power; there will be no place for extremists such as members of Jabhat al-Nusra or their sympathizers, nor for anyone associated with the regime who is subject to criminal transitional justice.

The Geneva II agenda may address the role of minorities, or leave the task to a more representative body. It will be the responsibility of the transitional government to declare and assure that minority rights are protected in a civil state granting equality to all citizens. To preserve the unity of Syria, no single group will be granted any privileged status in a new constitution. A transitional criminal justice tribunal will prosecute any criminal under international law, regardless of his religion or race. Once the transitional government is in control, many additional steps must be put in motion to allow peace and reconciliation to heal Syrian wounds.

To ensure that this is an enduring solution, talks must also consider a coordinated effort for reconstruction and recovery of the Syrian economy modeled after the Marshall Plan. Until the state is stable and capable of generating revenue, necessary support would include foreign funds, grants, private investment, and even bonds issued under the guarantee of friendly states. Finally, there should also be an international monitoring force (e.g. UN mission) to ensure the smooth implementation of agreements.

If the upcoming Geneva II conference does not address the Syrian people’s fight for freedom, it will be a humanitarian catastrophe of enormous proportions. Any labeling of this revolution as an extremist, sectarian, or civil war is intentionally misleading and will constitute a failure of the international community for not stopping the bloodshed. Without Assad’s departure before or during the conference, the Syrian opposition will walk out and keep fighting until it achieves victory. 

Hussein M. El-Amach, PhD is an external contributor to the Atlantic Council. He is a renowned Syrian economist, previously project director with the United Nations Development Programme, and former chairman of the Agency for Combating Unemployment in Syria. Photo Credit.

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