What’s Next for Syria? What’s Needed to Advance Syria’s Negotiations

On July 14, the Atlantic Council hosted a discussion with three distinguished Syrian opposition representatives: Dr. Bassma Kodmani, member of the Geneva negotiations team and spokesperson for the opposition; Ms. Alise Mofrej, Syrian politician and member of the negotiations team; and Dr. Seve Aydin-Izouli, lawyer and member of the Bar Association of Paris. Their presentation gave insight into the positions of opposition’s High Negotiating Committee (HNC) and what is needed to make progress toward a political transition.

The opposition is watching the recent US proposition of cooperating with Russia against terrorist groups with both hope and concern. According to Kodmani, the hope is that there will be cooperation between two key international players to address the situation in Syria, and the concern is whether “this cooperation is leading to serious commitment by those key players… and serious measures to ensure that the regime will comply.” Up until now, the regime has been the main player who is noncompliant, whereas the opposition forces have tried to cooperate with the international community, the latest example being the February 26 cessation of hostilities. Because of the regime’s pattern of noncompliance, the opposition is asking what it will get if it does comply, and what guarantees are there to ensure that the regime adheres to any agreement.

The opposition is not unhappy about the United States cooperating with Russia to target the Nusra Front. The extremist group has not been an ally to the opposition: it has attacked other opposition groups and kidnapped and assassinated other armed group leaders.

The HNC feels that, overall, it has become more competent in dealing with the international community since the first meeting in Geneva. For one thing, it has better developed its vision for what a transitional period would look like, which gives it more flexibility when dealing with the United Nations. However, the regime has refused to engage. Also, the opposition has become comfortable working with Staffan de Mistura, whereas at first it felt he was more focused on gaining the trust of Russia and Iran and kept pressuring the opposition to compromise on its demands.

The United State not taking concrete steps to ensure regime compliance has hurt its standing in the eyes of the opposition. Kodmani said, “Honestly, the opposition is saying this administration has not helped us, has not made us a partner, although we have made all the concessions… All of [these concessions are] not producing guarantees from the American side. That doesn’t give the administration now the right to lower our ceiling and to tell us you must live with Assad, the agreement will look like this, these are the terms, and if you don’t like them, that is not your choice.”

Detainees is an issue that the regime has refused to comply on at all, even less so than the short lived cessation of hostilities and the rare yielding to allow aid into besieged areas. Reports from the United Nations and human rights organizations have referred to the regime’s detainment tactics as an effort of collective extermination. Describing the torture, Mofrej talked about people being beaten and electrocuted, starvation tactics, people suffering from skin diseases and not being  treated, about a 12-year old boy dying because of exposure to cold, a woman doctor being hung from her hair, and how Mofrej herself was put in solitary confinement in a room with dead bodies.

Several times now the HNC has put forth suggestions to the United Nations about how to deal with this issue, such as at least having the regime release women and children as a trust building step, but each time Russia has blocked it. Mofrej mentioned that they have even tried to get the United Nations to invoke Article 7 to get monitors into the prisons without waiting for regime permission, but to no avail. For its part, the regime has been completely noncompliant on this issue, even less so than on other issues, which may stem from the fact that the detainment program has been a tool terrorize the regime’s opposition and ensure the regime’s survival since the 1960s, and will continue to be a tool needed for regime survival.

In May, Staffan de Mistura assigned Eva Svoboda, a member of the ICRC, to handle the issue of detainees and abductees, but Mofrej says there has been no progress until now. The numbers vary because no one is sure how many people are detained, but it is believed there are between 150,000 and 200,000 detainees in regime prisons, and that 60,000 have died while in detainment. The opposition forces are also holding detainees, but on a much smaller scale.

Aydin-Izouli spoke about the Kurdish perspective on the revolution. Despite tensions between the Kurdish and Arab forces and doubt from some parts of the opposition about where the Kurdish groups stand in relation to the opposition and regime, Aydin-Izouli said that the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) see their future as being part of Syria, though they believe that a federal state is the best way to ensure Kurdish rights. The Kurds were one of the best organized groups at the beginning of the revolution, having been fighting for their rights for decades, and so the regime tried to buy off the Kurdish forces in the first month of the revolution by granting them citizenship (which it had previously denied to them). Despite that, and despite having at times fought alongside regime forces against the Islamic State, the Kurdish parties would never trust regime after years of oppression.

There still remain outstanding issues between the Kurdish groups and the rest of the opposition, such as how reports of Kurdish forces displacing Arab residents in northern Syria will be resolved. Aydin-Izouli also acknowledged that the PYD has not been allowing a pluralistic party system to grow, and has not been allowing for dissent against its rule. However, Kodmani pointed out that there seems to be some progress to including the Kurds in the HNC, with Turkey yielding on its previously adamant refusal for the Kurds to take part. The HNC has also been discussing, including with the Kurds, about the need for a strong central government, even if there is a federal state, pointing out that many other states have failed or simply fallen into a de facto partition without a strong central government.

On the topic of future negotiations, Kodmani stated that the priority is achieving the cessation of hostilities, especially if the political agreement being offered does not meet the opposition’s core demands. “I think we’d rather see commitment on the cessation of hostilities. That is an accessible objective, we believe, if there is the will to enforce it. And if there is no political agreement that is satisfactory with which we can live, it’s better not to have an agreement, frankly, [at least] not now, and let a better context produce that agreement later.”

Image: Photo: Bassma Kodmani (3rd L) of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) gives a news conference after a meeting with U.N. mediator for Syria Staffan de Mistura during Syria peace talks at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, March 24, 2016. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse