by Yusuf Dhia-Allah (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 1, Rabi' al-Thani, 1434)
In recent weeks, hopes have been aroused by the announcement of some Syrian opposition leaders to hold a dialogue with the Syrian regime. Will this bring the much-needed peace to the Syrian people?
Is it realistic to hope for an end to the violence in Syria and move toward a negotiated settlement? With so much blood spilled over the past two years and with attitudes having hardened on both sides, a recent announcement by Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, head of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), to talk to the regime, and Syrian Minister for National Reconciliation, Ali Haider’s positive response, give reason for cautious optimism even if a solution may still be far away. Such hopes were further boosted by Russia’s invitation to al-Khatib to visit Moscow for a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the end of February (after Crescent press time).
Hopeful signs emerged at the end of January when al-Khatib announced he was willing to sit for talks with the Syrian government provided it released 160,000 prisoners. While al-Khatib could not have offered unconditional talks for fear of losing his standing in the SNC where different factions jockey for influence, the figure of 160,000 prisoners surprised many observers. Regardless, al-Khatib’s offer reflected some movement toward talks even if he has tried to backslide since then. On February 16, the Syrian National Council issued an 8-point demand that would scuttle any prospects of a dialogue if the group persists with it. This reflects the deep divisions within the alliance that is made of disparate groups getting instructions from their foreign masters.
The hope was predicated on the fact that on February 2 al-Khatib had met Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi in Munich on the sidelines of the 49th Munich Security Conference. Both Russia and Iran are allies of Syria and have rejected the demand, peddled by the US and Syrian opposition groups, that President Bashar al-Asad must first resign before any dialogue can take place.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast on February 6 provided details of what was discussed between al-Khatib and Dr. Salehi in Munich. “In his meeting with Dr. Salehi, Khatib called for the use of the Islamic Republic’s capacities for the establishment of a stable situation in Syria,” Mehmanparast said. He went on to elaborate that the Syrian opposition figure wanted these talks to help realize the demands of the Syrian people through peaceful and democratic channels, and by holding elections.
Al-Khatib’s call was hailed as a positive step forward, saying Tehran would welcome representatives of any Syrian opposition groups seeking proximity of views. Iran has consistently called for talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups to resolve the ongoing problem that is being stoked by the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. America’s European allies France and Britain are also involved as is the Zionist occupying regime in Palestine that is instigating trouble because Syria is part of the resistance front fighting the Zionist occupiers.
In December 2012, the Islamic Republic had released details of a plan that urged talks between the Syrian government and representatives of all Syrian groups regardless of their political and social tendencies in order to form a national reconciliation committee. Iran’s plan also called for an immediate end to all violence and military action under the supervision of the United Nations, an end to all economic sanctions imposed against the country, and the return of displaced civilians to their homes. Clearly without end to violence on all sides, little would be achieved in the talks even if they were held. The talks would quickly degenerate into finger pointing and end in a blame game.
The positive response of the Syrian government through Ali Haider, Minister for National Reconciliation, added further impetus to the possibility of talks; the timing, however, is still uncertain. In an interview with the British daily, The Guardian (February 11), Haider said he was willing to travel abroad, wherever it was possible for him to do so (this was a reference to the European Union’s ban on travel of Syrian officials), to meet opposition representatives. He also said the Syrian government would renew the travel documents of opposition figures, such as passports. He was also open about their contesting presidential elections. The Syrian foreign ministry endorsed the offer of talks two days later but said these must be held on Syrian soil while Russia announced it had invited Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem to Moscow.
These fast-paced developments to-ward reconciliation stand in sharp contrast to the mayhem in Syria that is instigated from abroad in which the Saudi regime is playing a large role by unleashing al-Qaeda-type mercenaries. They have gone on a rampage killing innocent civilians and indulging in gruesome acts such as beheading of people they perceive to be not following their narrow obscurantism. Killings in areas under rebel control and the fact that people are short of food and other essential items for survival have turned ordinary people against the rebels. The terrible conditions in refugee camps especially in Jordan and Turkey have added to people’s woes. The internally displaced Syrians are no better off since roads are unsafe and food supplies have been disrupted as a result of fighting. People are getting desperate and want an end to fighting. They loathe the foreign mercenaries and their brutal tactics and hold them responsible for much of the mayhem.
In an article that appeared on February 10 in the British daily The Guardian, Jonathan Steele confirmed that Syria’s third largest city, “Homs, has become a — relatively — safe haven. Hundreds of families who fled to other Syrian cities in fear last February  have loaded their belongings and returned. Civilians from Aleppo and Deir el-Zour — where fighting is still intense — are moving to Homs because they have heard it is more livable.” The city is largely under Syrian government forces and despite the checkpoints, “the soldiers seem relaxed and perfunctory as they check ID cards and car-boots,” wrote Steele. In addition to civilians, many rebels have also taken up the offer of the new provincial governor, Ahmed Munir Mohammad, to return. His softer approach is paying off. He has managed to separate many Syrians in the opposition from the foreign mercenaries. A significant number of Syrian rebels have laid down their arms, realizing the futility of a struggle that has been hijacked by foreigners for their own agenda, and returned to civilian life.
The Syrian government has also played it skillfully by withdrawing its forces from the countryside and strategically concentrating them in the large urban centres. This has had two effects: first, the army is no longer stretched thin and is able to defend major cities effectively by inflicting heavy casualties on rebel forces. Not all cities may be completely secure or peaceful but people can see the government is in control and they can go about their business as best they can. Second, while the rebels have been allowed a freehand in the countryside, they are now stuck with the responsibility to feed large populations under their control. In this, the rebels have failed miserably, turning people against them. In fact, in many rural towns and villages, the rebels have indulged in looting, which has increased people’s resentment toward them. There is also infighting among rebels for control of resources. Fighters keep shifting their loyalties depending on who can provide them weapons and money. These shifting loyalties have caused enormous problems for rebel commanders leading to frequent fights and killings between different groups.
While fighting between various rebel groups as well as with al-Qaeda mercenaries (that are answerable to no one) have weakened their position considerably, it is the realization among political opposition figures that the much-hoped for US military intervention will not materialize that has dampened their spirits. If there were any lingering doubts, these were removed by US President Barack Obama in an interview on January 28 with the American magazine, New Republic. In response to criticism from armchair warriors in Washington for not attacking Syria, Obama said: “I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations.” Obama’s reference to “limitations” is a clear admission of US inability to change the dynamics in Syria. He went on to explain the reasons for not intervening militarily. “In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation? Would a military intervention have an impact? How would it affect our ability to support troops who are still in Afghanistan?”
A day earlier while speaking with CBS television program, 60 Minutes, Obama explained why US intervention in Libya that resulted in the toppling and subsequent murder of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi was “successful,” but a similar intervention in Syria may “backfire.” What constitutes success for Obama is open to question but for the Syrian opposition the unmistakable message is that no American tanks will be available for the opposition to ride into Damascus. The opposition can hardly expect Saudi Arabia or Qatar, their armies comprising rank amateurs (despite Qatar’s repeated calls for Arabian armies to “intervene” in Syria), to help them. Unable to topple the regime on their own, they are left with little choice but to offer to hold talks with the government even if not all factions in the SNC agree on this. Exacerbated by their indecision, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov chastised them for not coming up with serious proposals for a solution, thus prolonging the conflict in Syria. He told them to grow out of their worn out demand for Bashar al-Asad to resign. He advised them to come to the table without preconditions.
If the Syrian opposition or whatever elements within it are serious about dialogue, Islamic Iran should encourage it. Further, it is in a good position to play a positive role. Al-Khatib’s meeting with Dr. Salehi points to Iran’s successful diplomacy. This approach should be pursued vigorously by getting as many opposition figures involved in the dialogue process as possible while at the same time nudging the Syrian government to be flexible so that the two-year crisis that has resulted in so much suffering can be brought to an end. Peace and reconciliation in Syria will benefit all parties concerned: the people of Syria, the opposition groups as well as the Syrian government.
It will, however, depend on how serious the opposition is for a dialogue. Further, it will depend on how serious their foreign sponsors are about ending the bloodshed in Syria.