Earlier this week, the president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (the National Coalition), Mouaz al-Khatib, announced that he is prepared to talk directly with representatives of the Syrian regime. He insisted however, that the regime releases 160,000 detainees and renew or extend expired passports for Syrians living outside the country. Meeting on Wednesday in Cairo, some members of the National Coalition slammed al-Khatib, accusing him of straying from the Doha agreement, a document on the basis of which the National Coalition was formed.
In the light of the disagreements, one must ask: why did al-Khatib offer to hold direct talks with representatives of the regime? For answers, we must look at the recent events related to the Syrian crisis. I will highlight some of these events that could reconstitute the National Coalition or force the resignation of its current president.
1. Immediately after the formation of the National Coalition, the US administration placed one of the main Syrian armed groups, Jabhat al-Nusra, on the list of terrorist organizations. The measure created a filter that limited the flow of arms into Syria. The legal implications of the label of terrorism split the opposition and tempered Saudi and Qatari enthusiasm for arming it. The categorization of the opposition into terrorist and non-terrorist groups was further enhanced by France’s intervention in Mali and the French media’s accusation of Qatar of supporting extremist groups in the Maghreb.
2. Three weeks ago, Assad gave a speech in which he called for reconciliation talks that excluded opponents he called "terrorists." Syrian officials said this week that political opposition figures could return to Damascus for "national dialogue" and that any charges against them would be dropped. In the same speech, Assad announced plans for a reconciliation conference with opposition figures "who have not betrayed Syria.” He totally ignored plans by the UN envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who, according to some observers, was close to bridging the gap between the Russian and American plans for solving the Syrian crisis. Assad’s speech practically rendered Brahimi’s efforts irrelevant.
3. This week (on Thursday), EU foreign ministers agreed to keep in place the ban on exporting arms to the Syrian opposition. This decision upset efforts by some leaders of the National Coalition who met earlier in the week (Monday and Tuesday) to ask for $500 million and arms. The meeting, which al-Khatib did not attend, failed to provide the National Coalition with any tangible support. Moreover, early last week, France’s foreign minister acknowledged that there is no indication whatsoever that Assad is about to be overthrown and he communicated this new assessment to the so-called “Friends of Syria” when representatives of about 50 countries and organizations met in Paris. Initially, the National Coalition planned to announce the formation of a government in exile during this meeting. But the lack of enthusiasm “delayed” the announcement.
4. Compared to the failed meetings in Paris and Cairo, several other international gatherings about Syria were held around the world and have produced actual results that could help the Syrian people mitigate the economic and political problems they face. One of such meetings was held in Kuwait to raise money for Syrian refugees and displaced civilians. This meeting was not political and perhaps because it was not political it was very successful. More than $1.6 billion was raised in two days. Importantly, the meeting, which was attended by representatives of many countries, including Russia and Iran, highlighted the extent of human suffering and the horror of war. Although the Syrian government was not represented, its authority was nonetheless preserved since the money that is intended to be used to help displaced Syrians inside and outside Syria will be managed by a UN agency, which will coordinate parts of its activities with the Syrian government. This fact could explain al-Khatib’s comment about expired passports. Apparently, he realized that despite France’s (and a handful of other countries’) recognition of the National Coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, Assad’s regime is still the only legitimate government in Syria. A second gathering was held in Geneva and it brought together about 300 representatives of the so-called “civil opposition” and international NGOs. The participants issued a declaration calling on the world community to take steps to end the violence in Syria on the basis of the International Geneva Agreement. Specifically, the participants agreed to “negotiations between the opposition and the regime to implement the International Geneva Agreement, for issuing a constitutional declaration to create a Government with full power to administrate this stage, and work to bring about fair legislature and presidential elections, under international supervision.”
5. This week, too, more shocking images of horror emerged: 80 bodies of Syrian civilians were pulled out of a river near Aleppo. The images showed more victims of summary executions. The Syrian government accused “terrorists” of kidnapping and executing civilians living in neighborhoods known for their support to Assad. The opposition groups accused the regime of the brutal killings. Only an independent investigation could determine the identity of the victims and the perpetrators. Nonetheless, regardless of the identity of those who committed this horrible crime, the images remain shocking. The horrific scene of bodies scattered along the river bank made more people realize that the agony of the Syrians is indescribable.
6. Adding to these crucial developments, a spokesperson for the National Coalition announced today (Friday) that “Syrian National Coalition President Moaz Alkhatib will meet U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.” Reacting to this announcement, Lavrov’s deputy Gennady Gatilov tweeted, “Media reports about the upcoming Munich meeting… are not true.” It is not surprising that Russia would hesitate in granting al-Khatib a high profile meeting given that the latter, when he was selected to head the National Coalition, demanded that “Russia apologizes to the Syrian people.” Russian officials are unlikely to agree to a multilateral high profile meeting that includes a figure they characterized, then, as “amateur.” In other words, this proposed meeting might turn into a series of one-on-one conversations to assess the situation and suggest a path forward. It is unlikely that such a meeting, even if it were to happen, will result in a breakthrough given the gap between Russian and US positions on Syria and the disagreements within the National Coalition.
Notwithstanding this public dissent, and in the light of all these important developments, it is likely that some leaders on both sides are now convinced that there must be an end to the bloodshed, suffering, and destruction. Al-Khatib might be one of them. After all, and despite being attacked by his colleagues from the National Coalition, al-Khatib appeared on an Arab television after the Cairo meeting and declared that he is master of his own decision. He said that he stands by his statement on talks with the regime. He also said that he was not pressured or enticed by anyone or any country but his stand is based on his personal concern for the lives and welfare of the Syrian people. When asked if he is acting in contravention of consensus among the leaders of the Coalition, he replied, “the Coalition members have agreed always to alleviate the pain and suffering of the Syrian people.”
Indeed, al-Khatib’s new position might be dictated by his realization that Syria could not and should not endure this horror for another 22 months. It is also possible that he finally realized that the support promised by the sponsors of the National Coalition may never materialize. In a sense, his about-face regarding talks with the regime to which he previously vowed not to talk is either an act of political maneuvering or a cry of despair. Perhaps, now, the Syrians can trust each other and rely on one another and put an end to an unwinnable civil war. Relying on the regional and world powers has proven to be a costly participation in a proxy war that is devastating the country and further pushing Syrians to the brink of sectarian and ideological war that will certainly fragment the Syrian society and destabilize the entire region.
Professor Souaiaia writes here in his personal capacity.
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