Participants in the Riyadh II Expanded Syrian Opposition Meeting, held in the Saudi capital, pose for a photo, 22/10/2017 (AFP)
AMMAN — Alongside the struggle against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Syrians have been in a continuous battle since March 2011 to create influential political bodies to represent the revolutionaries.
However, the relations between post-revolution political blocs, assemblies and platforms have been characterized by internal conflicts that reflect the regional and international polarization.
A shaky birth
As protests spread in the spring of 2011, there was “a dire need for this popular mobilization to translate into politics. All those who went out to demonstrate had a desire for political representation for the voices calling for freedom and salvation from tyranny,” Yahya al-Aridi, the spokesman for the Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC), told Syria Direct.
On June 30, 2011—three months after the outbreak of the widespread protests—a group of parties and political figures announced in Damascus the formation of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), a political alliance bringing together what was eventually termed the “internal opposition.”
On July 16, a meeting, later known as the National Salvation Conference, convened in Istanbul, Turkey. It was attended by different Syrian opposition spectrum bodies, including the NCC, to form a National Salvation Council to discuss the post-Assad regime era.
In October 2011, a group of opposition entities and figures announced the formation of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the first political body representing the revolution at home and abroad. However, NCC did not join the new body led by Burhan Ghalioun due to diverging positions between the two blocs on several issues, especially the military opposition and external support.
Consequently, the signs of a division into two opposition groups, internal and external, began to appear clearly and openly. This division would later be strengthened by a second version of the National Salvation Conference convened in Damascus on September 23, 2012. As it was held with the blessing of Russia, Iran and the regime, the conference was rejected by most of the components of the “external opposition” and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), even though its concluding statement adopted the revolution’s demands, including changing the Assad regime.
Weeks prior, the United Nations had issued the Geneva I Communique on June 30, 2012, mapping out a political solution in Syria. Known as the Annan plan, after then-UN envoy to Syria Kofi Annan, the plan included six provisions, notably stopping the militarization of the crisis, resolving the issue politically through dialogue and negotiations alone and forming a transitional government. The solution was expected to require a full year.
However, due to conflicts and defections in the SNC ranks, Qatar, in the presence of Arab and Western diplomats, sponsored the formation of a new political coalition, the National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, on November 11, 2012. Still, the NCC did not join the new expanded political body.
The Coalition entered into years of useless negotiations with the regime. In late 2015, 17 countries and the European Union and the UN adopted the Vienna Communique that demanded: ensuring access for humanitarian organizations to all Syrian regions, affirming the need to defeat the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and forming a credible, inclusive and non-sectarian transitional government, provided that its formation was followed by drafting a new constitution and then holding elections.
After the Vienna meeting, “Jordan was tasked with defining certain forces as terrorist [groups],” while “Saudi Arabia was to gather the opposition and create a specific body to participate in the negotiations process to implement Resolution 2254,” which had been adopted by the UN Security Council on December 18, 2015, based on Geneva and Vienna Communiques, al-Aridi added.
“Syrians often heard political elites admit their lack of experience and gain it by working within the political opposition.”
A mix of contradictions
In December 2015, Saudi Arabia sponsored the Riyadh I Expanded Meeting for the Syrian opposition. It included military and political opposition entities, including members of the NCC. The parties reached a “political document and unified vision for the settlement process.”
On December 10, the Syrian High Negotiations Committee was officially formed as a reference for the delegation negotiating with the regime. It comprises 32 members: nine from the National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, ten from armed opposition factions, five from the NCC and eight independent.
Six days later, the Security Council adopted Resolution 2254 that called for the UN to bring the opposition and regime together in formal negotiations in early January 2016.
Preceding that, two platforms had been formed in Cairo and Moscow in 2014. But many other opposition entities accused both platforms of favoring Russia and the Assad regime and having approaches that diverged from the priorities of the Syrian High Negotiations Committee. However, Russia repeatedly invoked the existence of “two oppositions,” calling for the ranks of the Syrian opposition to be unified to complete the political process and reach a final solution to the conflict.
In addition to a Saudi agenda, these calls led to organizing a second opposition meeting in Riyadh to form a unified delegation for the upcoming Geneva VIII meeting.
Riyadh II was held on November 22, 2017, amid a tense atmosphere, including the collective resignation of members of the Syrian High Negotiations Committee. While dozens of political figures boycotted the meeting, the Moscow platform withdrew from sessions because of what its head, Qadri Jamil, described as “the failure of the [meeting] preparatory committee to reach a consensus on a common vision for the single negotiating delegation.”
However, the meeting produced a new, expanded version of the Syrian High Negotiations Committee (known also as the Syrian Negotiation Committee) comprising 50 members: 10 from the National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, six from the NCC, four from the Cairo platform, four from the Moscow platform, ten from military factions and 16 independent.
“Due to pressure from Russian that has continuously talked about multiple oppositions and the need to expand the opposition, the Cairo and Moscow platforms entered the Syrian Negotiations Committee,” al-Aridi said. The “Russian endeavors are clear: Russia wants to destroy the credibility of the opposition however it can.”
Moscow leads the political process
Due to the UN’s failure to achieve progress towards results in the negotiating process, Russia began a political mobilization coinciding with its military intervention in support of the regime. On January 23, 2017, the first round of Astana talks was held under the auspices of Russia, Iran and Turkey, known as the “guarantor states.” The final statement emphasized a political solution to the Syrian conflict, that negotiations between the opposition and regime would be indirect, and that the moderate opposition be separated from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The three guarantor states also agreed to establish a trilateral mechanism to monitor a ceasefire in Syria.
Despite the Syrian opposition’s insistence that the UN sponsor a political solution based on the Geneva and Vienna Communiques and Resolution 2254, the Astana track constituted an independent path for a political solution in Syria. Moscow picked particular items in the Security Council resolution and previous communiques, especially those related to the humanitarian situation and military operations, and worked on them in “controversial” negotiations that only resulted in achieving the interests of Russia and the Assad regime.
Russia’s aim, according to al-Aridi, was consistently “to hollow out international decisions by creating different political paths, such as Astana, concerned with the military and humanitarian matters that are part of [Resolution] 2254.” But “in the end, it was nothing but an attempt to divert the political path from its main course in Geneva: achieving the transition process and finding a political solution.”
Weeks after the first round of Astana Talks, Geneva IV took place in March 2017 and witnessed the first official announcement of the Constitutional Committee. The UN Special Envoy to Syria at the time, Staffan de Mistura, announced that four “baskets” had been reached for a final solution to the Syrian conflict: establishing a credible, non-sectarian government, starting the process of drafting a new constitution, discussing holding free and fair elections and discussing a counter-terrorism strategy.
This announcement was a starting point for Russia to continue its political path in Syria. With the fourth round of Astana Talks held on May 3 of the same year, Russia announced three de-escalation zones in the Syrian opposition-controlled areas. A similar fourth zone in southern Syria came into existence under an independent US-Russian agreement in July 2017. However, the opposition delegations participating in the talks suspended their participation on the first day and withdrew during the announcement of the talks’ concluding statement in protest of Iran having been invited to sign the statement.
On January 30, 2018, Russia devised a new track based on the Astana Talks. Known as the Sochi Conference, the Syrian Peoples’ Conference and the National Dialogue, the talks brought together, Russia claimed, representatives of different sects, ethnicities, nationalities, and representatives of the regime and opposition.
The participants agreed to 12 items to reach a political settlement to the Syrian crisis. One of them was forming a constitutional committee composed of the government and the opposition for constitutional reform per Security Council Resolution 2254.
After months of disagreements and discussions sponsored by Russia and the Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, about a mechanism to form a Constitutional Committee, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced on September 23, 2019, that the Syrian parties had agreed to form it. Since that time, the Committee’s work has yielded nothing.
“It is easy to attack the opposition. It is not perfect. It has all possible ailments. But in practice, there are other reasons for the tragedy’s extension.”
The stated goals of establishing the four de-escalation zones were to limit military confrontations between opposition and regime forces, deliver aid to civilians, rehabilitate infrastructure, and create conditions conducive to the return of refugees and displaced people to their areas, with the intent of eventually reaching a lasting political solution.
But by the thirteenth round of Astana Talks in August 2019, the government forces and its allied militias controlled three of the de-escalation areas, while humanitarian and security conditions were worsening in the last zone in northwest Syria where hundreds of thousands of people were forcibly displaced to after fleeing the other de-escalation areas.
This explains the actual goals of “de-escalation,” which Russia invented by picking up part of Resolution 2254, according to al-Aridi, “turning the ceasefire into the so-called de-escalation zones, which it later came back to and gnawed away at.”
Russia applied the same scenario on the political level.
Despite the UN Secretary-General’s celebratory announcement of the Constitutional Committee’s formation in September 2019, the Committee’s work did not indicate it is a fundamental step for resolving the Syrian crisis. Since the start of its meetings on October 30, 2019, the gap between the regime and opposition delegations has only widened.
The idea of the Constitutional Committee was first proposed in Astana, according to al-Aridi, and “the factions refused the official proposal at that time.” Later, with Moscow holding the Syrian Peoples’ Conference in Sochi, Putin re-emphasized the idea included in the conference’s final statement.
In an attempt by the Syrian Negotiations Committee to put matters back in the court of the UN, said al-Aridi, it “withdrew the card Russia wanted to keep for itself, which is the Constitutional Committee, and placed it under the auspices of the United Nations. This really infuriated Russia.” He added that “practically speaking, Russia is no less than the regime in obstructing the Committee’s work.”
Expertise through experience
Over the past ten years, “the political opposition has always tried to develop its political performance,” according to Muhammad Sarmini, head of the Turkey-based Jusoor Center for Studies. However, “the constant delay in benefiting from the experiences was the main feature,” as “Syrians often heard political elites admit their lack of experience, and that they gain it by working within the political opposition,” he told Syria Direct.
Al-Aridi confirmed this, saying, “the political opposition is not that experienced.” But it includes “distinctly patriotic members who are committed to the rights of Syrians, and who remain genuinely committed to defending these rights.”
Still, the role of “internal disputes in opposition ranks and their split from the people inside [Syria],” according to Sarmini.
But while the opposition suffers from “weakness of vision, processes of exclusion and view of some that the opposition is a new career or a way to get clout, as well as the greed of some people,” Al-Aridi said, “blame cannot be put entirely on the opposition.” He pointed to external influence, especially “Russia and Iran’s strong commitment to supporting the regime of tyranny.” Meanwhile, “the friends of the Syrian people who support the opposition and the revolution have not equaled what the Russians and Iranians did in their support for the despotic regime.”
A burden on the revolution?
The political opposition has seized the “place of the spokesperson and negotiator in the name of those opposed to Assad’s rule,” Sarmini said. “Therefore, it is viewed in terms of a responsibility regarding the results in this unfortunate reality that Syria has reached.”
However, “perhaps one who accuses the opposition and considers it as a burden would not be able to provide anything more in its place due to many external and internal factors, but this does not exempt it from responsibility,” especially since “some of the causes of its weakness and impotence are self-imposed. Silence and inaction in a position of responsibility with this catastrophic reality are unacceptable.”
Further, “the issue is not in the hand of the opposition or the regime,” al-Aridi said, “the two parties are not the decision-makers.” He explained that “the regime was treacherous to the degree that it caused the issue to be outside the frame of Syrians, despite the constant talk that it is a Syrian-Syrian issue.”
“It is easy to attack the opposition,” al-Aridi added. “It is not perfect. It has all possible illnesses. But in practice, there are other reasons for the tragedy’s extension.”
“At one point, before Riyadh II, the Syrian Negotiations Committee suspended the negotiations. But for more than 15 months, nobody paid any attention to the Syrian issue. The Russians and Iranians were alone in Syrian territory. They regained much of the geography that had been liberated, and Aleppo fell. The issue is with the individuals. Individuals can be replaced, which is continuously possible and necessary for the opposition to give momentum to the people who can find an effective plan to achieve the goals.”
According to Sarmini, “the processes of reform and developing the performance [of the opposition negotiators] will remain slow, with their effectiveness limited in the short term.” But in the long term, “replacing the opposition, activating the idle among it or helping the current opposition to performing better depends on the extent of international seriousness about finding a political solution in Syria: the conviction of countries in need to enable free political party action in Syria.”
“When the human right and the right of Syria to return to life after implementing international resolutions and finding a real solution and political transition is achieved, the actual future will belong to the voice of Syrians,” said al-Aridi.
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.