Syrian opposition leader Moaz Alkhatib today urged President Bashar al-Assad to enter a dialogue to end the violent conflict and help “the regime leave peacefully,” Reuters reports:
The moderate Islamist preacher announced last week he was prepared to talk to Assad’s representatives. Although he set several conditions, the move broke a taboo on contacts with authorities and dismayed many in opposition ranks who insist on Assad’s departure as a precondition for negotiation.
After meeting senior Russian, U.S. and Iranian officials at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend, Alkahtib said none had a plan to end the civil war.
“The big powers have no vision … Only the Syrian people can decide on the solution,” the Syrian National Coalition leader told Al Jazeera Television.
Alkhatib said it was not “treachery” to seek dialogue to end a conflict in which more than 60,000 people have been killed, 700,000 have been driven from their country and millions more are homeless and hungry.
“The regime must take a clear stand (on dialogue) and we say we will extend our hand for the interest of people and to help the regime leave peacefully,” he told the Qatar-based channel. “It is now in the hands of the regime.”
“We will find a solution, there are many keys,” he said. “If the regime wants to solve (the crisis), it can take part in it. If it wants to get out and get the people out of this crisis, we will all work together for the interest of the people and the departure of the regime.”
The formation of a transitional authority is under consideration, Alkhatib said, but opposition factions and international powers disagree over whether Assad could remain a player.
Walid al-Bunni, a member of the Coalition’s 12-member politburo, dismissed Alkhatib’s meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.
“It was unsuccessful. The Iranians are unprepared to do anything that could help the causes of the Syrian Revolution,” Bunni, a former political prisoner, told Reuters.
The establishment of a transitional government or government in exile should be priority for the opposition, says Radwan Ziadeh, executive director of the Syrian Center for Political & Strategic Studies, and a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
A transitional authority should be formed via a national conference held in Syria, comprising local revolutionary councils and coordinating committees, the organized opposition, and independent brigades, he recently argued on Foreign Policy:
These opposition forces should make up the majority of the newly-formed government and their role should be to determine the structure of the government during the transitional period. This would address many of the ongoing problems that the international community has perceived with the Syrian opposition, and accelerate the desperately needed process toward the end of the Assad regime and the creation of a new, free Syria.
“It is facing the prospect of defections and, worse, disintegration,” he argues. “Narrow interests are taking precedence; Islamists are overpowering secularists; exiles are eclipsing insiders; and very few members seem to have credibility on the ground back home.”
“The U.S. is empowering the Ahmad Chalabis of Syria,” argued one prominent dissident.
The opposition coalition’s president al-Khatib is only “a symbolic figurehead” who “lacks the experience to play the jarring game of opposition politics,” says Mardini, is a Middle East analyst at the Jamestown Foundation:
Riad Seif [above], a key American ally and longstanding dissident in Syria, is being marginalized. Both leaders have been sidelined by the expatriate businessman Mustafa Sabbagh, whose moneyed Syrian Business Forum is suspected of being a Qatari front group. Mr. Sabbagh is virtually unknown to most Syrians because he has long been based outside Syria and lacks the respect of veteran dissidents.
“Early mistakes in transitions tend to have enduring effects. But the solution is not to form more umbrella groups, adding layers of vested interests that favor competition over cooperation,” Mardini writes in The New York Times:
The United States must make recognition of the opposition strictly conditional on the coalition being genuinely representative of the Syrian people, with clear punishment for noncompliance. And contact between the American government and opposition leaders must not be limited to the ambassador and his staffers; Americans often seem oblivious to the power that personal relationships can have across the Arab world. Finally, America must empower secular, moderate and independent political forces that promote compromise and moderation.
Two ideas emerged at the Munich Security Conference that could entice Moscow to play a more constructive role in solving “the world’s most intractable and dangerous problem,” writes The Washington Post’s David Ignatius:
• Vice President Joe Biden proposed that Russia and the US collaborate to secure control of Syria’s chemical weapons, in the event that Assad’s government falls:
This idea of Russian-American cooperation to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction echoes one of the most positive joint efforts after the end of the Cold War….In the case of Syria, a joint effort to secure chemical weapons would reassure Russia that it will have a role in future security and stability in Syria and the region. It would also reduce the danger that these weapons might fall into the hands of the jihadist groups, such as al-Nusra Front that’s linked to al-Qaeda.
• Sheik Mouaz al-Khatib’s expressed willingness to meet with the Assad regime, despite being “blasted for it by other, more hawkish members of the opposition” was another positive sign, Ignatius adds, and welcomed by Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special representative for Syria.
Brahimi is eager to see “a transitional government formed with ‘full executive powers’ (this, he explained, is diplomatic speak for Assad having ‘no role in the transition),” notes Roger Cohen in The New York Times:
The government would be the fruit of negotiations outside Syria between opposition representatives and a “strong civilian-military” government delegation. It would then oversee a democratic transition including elections and constitutional reform.
“This sounds good but will not fly. …. Syria, with its mosaic of faiths and ethnicities, requires political compromise to survive. That is the endgame,” says Cohen:
“The Obama administration has refrained from directly intervening or supporting Syria’s increasingly armed opposition, based on an argument that neither would make the situation better,” writes Andrew J. Tabler, a senior fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy:
But allowing the conflict to continue and simply offering humanitarian and project assistance treats merely the symptoms while failing to shape a political settlement that would help cure the disease: a brutal Assad regime that was unable to reform trying to shoot one of the youngest populations in the Middle East into submission.
The White House reportedly vetoed a joint initiative by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus last summer to train and supply lethal assistance to moderate Syrian rebel groups, in large part because the administration does not want to find itself “in the business of helping Islamist extremists inherit a Syrian vacuum,” while the “opposition coalition is divided and lacks credibility,” notes Cohen.
Nevertheless, “an inflection point has been reached,” he contends:
Inaction spurs the progressive radicalization of Syria, the further disintegration of the state, the intensification of Assad’s mass killings, and the chances of the conflict spilling out of Syria in sectarian mayhem. It squanders an opportunity to weaken Iran. This is not in the West’s interest…
It is time to alter the Syrian balance of power enough to give political compromise a chance and Assad no option but departure. That means an aggressive program to train and arm the Free Syrian Army.
A plausible scenario facing Syria is one of “incremental, phased collapse,” says Steven Heydemann, the USIP Special Adviser for Middle East Initiatives:
Fearing retribution, many of Syria’s Alawites are backing the regime with the zeal of people who believe that their backs are against the wall. Such a phased collapse could prolong the country’s vicious civil war for a significant, if unknown, period of time; Heydemann calls it “the $64,000 question.” How long it lasts would in part depend on the truncated regime’s military resources and on the support it receives from allies in Iran and Lebanon, as well as from Russia.
“Fundamental questions could be opened up,” said Heydemann. “Such a collapse could reopen the issue of the post-Ottoman state system in the Levant.”
With the demise of the Ottoman Empire in World War II, the victorious powers led by Great Britain and France won mandates to govern—and draw the borders of—what would later become Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. The post-Ottoman lines politically separated traditional ethnic and religious groups, particularly the Kurds, into different entities.
“Despite frequent claims about the fragility and artificiality of the state system in the Middle East,” Heydemann noted, “modern Syria is the result of a political settlement that has held for nearly 100 years. Reopening this post-Ottoman settlement now would have huge spillover effects, potentially threatening the integrity of Iraq and sparking conflicts between Kurds and Turkey.”