The Syrian opposition got confused, possibly because it was quite an awkward moment for three reasons. First, the opposition’s “friends” let it down and stopped all kinds of support for the Syrian National Coalition outside and for the revolution inside. Second, Russia and Iran took advantage of the United States’ obsession with “jihadists” to help the Syrian regime restore its military and political power. Third, the coalition is facing growing pressure to engage in a “dialogue” that would seek a political resolution for the crisis and Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib gave his “personal,” though conditioned, approval, which gave rise to a general sentiment of frustration among opposition factions.
Biden, Ford say Syrian regime will fall
During the past week, the United States tried to prove that it has not changed it stance on the Syrian regime to become more inclined towards a resolution that keeps it in power. To this end, Vice President Joe Biden made sure to stress in Munich that the Syrian regime is bound to fall and is no longer capable of holding on and that Washington will continue supporting the coalition.
The same view was echoed by Ambassador Robert Ford in several capitals. Yet, nice talk does not change reality. The coalition was shocked when the United States placed al-Nusra Front on its list of terrorist organizations, a step that it saw as an endorsement of the regime’s version of the story and that reduced the opposition to this one front. It was equally shocked to see the International Community overlook the role of the Syrian regime’s brutality in nurturing extremism.
What is worse is that the opposition felt that the current military equation, in which none of the parties involved is allowed to resolve the conflict, is being jeopardized and that Americans are no longer holding on to it. No progress is, therefore, expected as far as the flow of weapons and ammunition to the opposition is concerned.
No consensus on Assad future
If Washington lobbied for stopping support to the opposition in response to the demands of Russia and the Syrian regime, it was expected that the American stance would start leaning towards the “political resolution” option.
According to available information, negotiations with Russia have not reached the point of determining the fate of Bashar al-Assad, but rather decided what is required of him. Only the mechanism of implementation remains to be agreed on. Based on the Geneva Agreement and its interpretations, negotiations remained in square one. This was demonstrated in the failure of the “government with full powers” proposal as conveyed by Lakhdar Ibrahimi, for it seemed that international parties have no more ideas to present.
Assad’s ‘solution plan’
At that moment, Assad proposed what he called the “solution plan” and which is to be implemented under the leadership and according to the conditions of the current government. Of course, this plan was only supported by Iran while Russia saw it as a “good base” for a resolution and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov now considers this plan the means to reach a solution, meaning that the opposition will be invited to take part in it.
The Syrian regime’s military dilemma is not over yet, but its allies are acting as if there is a victor that can impose its conditions. The opposition is not yet defeated, but it being pushed towards surrendering. In this confused context, Khatib’s approval, though conditioned, was met with objection and indignation and he was even asked to resign and was threatened with dismissal. But every impulsive step has its own risks. After the Syrian National Council became part of the coalition, any destabilization of this coalition could eliminate any possibility of forming an entity that would represent the opposition.
What made Khatib take such a risk? The man is not a professional politician nor is he corrupt. He is not the leader of any party or group and he cannot be accused of betraying the revolution and its martyrs. But he knows the regime very well and does not need proof of its tyranny and brutality. He is definitely not in favor of the idea of establishing dialogue with the regime.
Why then did he give his preliminary approval to it?
He was said to have been subjected to pressure, whether by the United States or any other country. This pressure was mainly the result of the escalation in Syria and which is about to develop to a long civil war from which the revolution is not expected to benefit. As for the regime, it has a long time ago been prepared for engaging in such a war and for manipulating the unity of the people and the land in order to establish its Alawite “statelet. The opposition now finds itself responsible for preserving the unity of Syria, which the regime wants to trade for this “statelet.”
This critical turn in the events gave rise to all sorts of speculations. The head of the coalition could have resigned or issued an angry statement in which he reveals the problems he is facing with his international “friends.” Yet, he chose to bow and agree to engage in a dialogue under basic conditions. Why? Because he is aware that those conditions, no matter how limited they are, will not be met by the regime.
None of the parties, including the restricted opposition, could engage in a dialogue without conditions, at least for the purpose of gauging the regime’s reactions. The response of Russia and Iran gave the impression that Khatib’s approval constitutes the beginning of a “victory” for the regime. Even the regime welcomed the idea through the so-called “reconciliation minister” in a manner that seemed more intimidating than reconciliatory. Whether this “dialogue” is a trap or not, it looks like all those who take about a “political resolution” would not be able to know what it is like unless they try it.
Who is winning, who is losing?
Maybe the head of the coalition used this maneuver to make sure whether this solution plan actually exists. In fact, Americans, Iranians, and Russians are all maneuvering and any political negotiations would set the stage for more maneuvers. It seems like the allies of the Syrian regime want to rush both parties into this dialogue as if it has become an aim in itself or as if the dialogue would create a kind of dynamism that would enable it to run itself. This is a hollow bet, for the regime is acting as if it is winning, but the opposition is defying it on daily basis.
The regime is behaving as if the opposition does not exist while trying to reach a resolution with its factions. The opposition seems more realistic, for it admits that the regime exists because it is fighting this regime and stripping it of its legitimacy and will continue to do so. Even if the opposition agrees to engage in a dialogue with the regime, it will be under the conditions that serve the best interests of Syria and all the Syrian people.
At the end of the day, the Munich maneuver came in favor of the opposition and not against it. The opposition did not lose anything and did not give up anything. This was rather a chance for Russians and Iranians to see for themselves that the price of a “political resolution” is much more than they had imagined and than what the Syrian regime is willing to offer.
Khatib made sure that he is not taking risks, but is rather playing a game and embarrassing other parties. That is why he announced that the super powers have no plan, which means that it is still the inside of Syria that matters and it from Syrian territory that a resolution could be reached. No sooner had he approved the dialogue and set his conditions than the regime proved that it is not prepared for any solution and is actually eliminating all possible solutions and insisting on the military option that it can no longer keep up with.
This article was published in Al-Hayat newspaper on Feb. 7, 2013.
Abdul Wahab Badrakhan is a Lebanese journalist, who writes weekly in London's Al-Hayat newspaper among other Arab publications. Badrakhan was a journalist in 'Annahar' (Beirut) until 1979, in 'Annahar Arabic & international' magazine (Paris) up to 1989, in 'Al-Hayat' (London) as managing editor then deputy editor in chief until 2006. At present, Badrakhan is working on two books. The first book is on the roots of the experiences that have motivated young Arab men to go to Afghanistan. The second is devoted to Arab policies to counterterrorism, starting with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and covering the ensuing wars.