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Michael Jansen: The opposition’s pipedream
December 18, 2017
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

The eighth round of UN-mediated talks aimed at reaching a political settlement to end the nearly seven-year war in Syria never got off the ground because before representatives of the government and opposition arrived in Geneva, the latter proclaimed President

Bashar Al Assad had to stand down before the beginning of transition from his regime to a post-war regime. From the outset of efforts to bring an end to the conflict, Assad has been the sticking point whenever negotiations have taken place. The demand for Assad to leave power was adopted by the opposition and its supporters from the outset of the con flict.

In June 2012 the Action Group on Syria called for the creation of a transitional authority which would assume “full executive powers” without specifying Assad’s fate. This authority would contain members of the government and opposition and was meant to be constituted on the basis of “mutual consent.” The opposition insisted it would not grant consent as long as Assad was president. Even at that time this demand was out of date, a senior UN official told The Gulf Today in mid-2013. The government still controlled most of the country, including its main cities. The official made the point that if a free and fair election was held in Syria, Assad would win. This is why the demand for his removal has always been the focus of the opposition.

Having visited Syria many times since then and asked Syrians and others their view on the Assad issue, they replied he would win any election because there is no other figure on the horizon - and certainly none among the members of the expatriate opposition. These days a majority of Syrians living in the country and many outside — even those who do not like him — would vote for Assad because they feel he is the only person who can keep the country together.

In September, UN mediator Staffan de Mistura warned, “For the opposition, the message is very clear: if they were planning to win the war, facts are proving that is not the case. So now it’s time to win the peace.” He added that nobody could claim to have won the war. “Victory can only be of there is a sustainable political long-term solution. Otherwise, instead of war...we may see plenty of low intensity guerrilla (conflict] going on for the next 10 years..”

The opposition clearly did not take de Mistura’s warning clearly when members of the Saudi-sponsored High Negotiation Committee (HNC) met with other groups in Riyadh ahead of the latest, and most dramatically failed, round of talks.

The Riyadh communique adhered to the June 2012 formula — which did not specify the departure of Assad — and stated the transition “will not happen without the departure of Bashar al-Assad and his cronies.”

As far as the government was concerned, this statement, reiterated when the HNC arrived in Geneva, finished off the eighth round of talks in Geneva as it preconditioned the outcome.

De Mistura said the government has refused to engage until the HNC withdraws this demand. He expressed his disappointment over the demand but did say in later statements the HNC “did not refer any more to that content which was particularly annoying to the government.” He also intimated that not all members of the opposition agreed with this demand. This has been confirmed by leaks from the HNC.

De Mistura praised the Saudi authorities for getting the diverse opposition groups — including the Moscow and Cairo platforms — together in a single delegation, a demand both he and the government had put forward. It is hard to believe either platform would have agreed to the “Assad has to go” line. Moscow backs Assad and Cairo does not ask for his departure but calls for stability and decentralisation to reduce the authority of Damascus.

De Mistura suggested both sides were setting preconditions with one saying “Assad has to go” and the other saying no. The point is, for opposition members connected with the hardline expatriate Syrian National Council/Coalition, his departure is essential if they are to have a chance at taking power in a post-war regime. This is a pipedream as none of the figures in this group have any hope of doing so unless they agree to a power-sharing set-up with the more powerful elements of the current government.

On the military front, reverting to de Mistura’s September statement that the opposition has not won the war: when making this observation he may well have had in mind the axiom — “You cannot win at the conference table what you do not win on the battlefield.” The government now controls around 65 per cent of the country where 85 per cent of Syrians still in Syria live and this percentage is growing due to the “de-confliction,” or ceasefire, zones and the defeat of Daesh. The government also holds all Syria’s main cities. The other major stretch of territory, about 25 per cent, is occupied by the US-backed Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces militia which is excluded from the Geneva talks, due to opposition from Turkey, and does not belong to the anti-Assad camp.

The last sizeable tract of territory, the north-western province of Idlib, is controlled by Tahrir Al Sham, the coalition formed by Al Qaeda’s Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly Jabhat Al Nusra. Since this group is branded “terrorist,” government forces, backed by Russian air strikes, and allied ground forces, have already begun advancing on this province.

On the political front, according to Robin Wright’s December 11th article in The New Yorker, the Trump administration “says it still wants a political process that holds the prospect of Assad’s departure. But it has concluded that it may take until 2021, when the next (Syrian) election is scheduled, to pull it off....US officials worry that Assad could win the 2021 Syrian election, one way or the other, and remain in power for years to come.”

the author

a well-respected observer of middle

east affairs, has three books on the

Arab-Israeli conflict.

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