In recent months, a number of initiatives have been put forward as alternatives towards a comprehensive political solution in Syria, such as UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura’s proposal to freeze the conflict, starting from Aleppo; Egypt’s idea of an intercession to end the Syrian conflict recently circulating in the media; and Russia’s latest initiative to push for dialogue between the Syrian regime and the opposition.
The flurry of recent initiatives have arisen with the expansion of the role of jihadist groups on the ground in Syria, the increased likelihood of an adverse impact on the interests of regional and international powers, and the worsening plight of Syrian refugees. Given the failure to reach a political settlement in the Geneva 2 conference, and the intractable military situation on the ground, a search for temporary remedies has replaced any serious effort to reach a long-term resolution to the Syrian crisis. Whatever the objectives of their sponsors, all of these initiatives have featured a distinct lack of clarity, and a piecemeal approach that appears removed from the essence of the conflict in Syria.
No sooner did the former National Coalition President Moaz al-Khatib visit Moscow than Russian diplomats started preparing the grounds for a meeting between the Syrian regime and the opposition. In mid-December 2014, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov undertook visits to Istanbul, Beirut and Damascus, meeting several representatives of Syrian groups to discuss the convening of this meeting. Moscow, however, had no work plan to propose, nor an objective for the convening of the meeting, not even – at the very least – a discussion paper prepared for the attendees.
That this initiative’s approach lacks substance is a safe assumption. Russia’s latest maneuver also ignores key points of the Geneva Agreement, such as the creation of an authority for transitional rule invested with full powers. It might talk about a political settlement ‘based on the foundations and principles contained in the Geneva statement issued on June 30, 2012’, but the intent here is not for negotiation between adversaries on the basis of clear and agreed principles, but for a non-binding dialogue.
What is more, Russia made clear who it was inviting. The invitation was addressed to the "opponents" of the regime in their individual capacities, and not their party affiliations or in their representative capacities, with their attendance expected to come without conditions, set positions, or preconceived ideas with regard to the transitional body. The dialogue – Russia stressed – would be "open-ended”. Throughout Syria’s crisis, Russia has refused to deal with the Syrian revolution and the opposition as institutions or structures, but as individuals and personalities. This position, in essence, echoes that of the Syrian regime, which has always maintained that there are individuals in opposition in Syria, but that there is no such thing as “an opposition”.
In wording its latest initiative, Russia declared that it is combatting international terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, and is committed to a united effort against terrorists and extremists in Syria and the Arab world. Russia also emphasized its understanding that the Syrian people alone have the right to determine the future of Syria and that all communities and segments of Syrian society must be enabled to participate in a comprehensive and meaningful process of national dialogue process, and that this process of dialogue must be without external interference in the sovereign affairs of Syria. The echoes of the Syrian regime’s rhetoric are here unmistakable.
Russian Goals and Motivations
Rather than crafting a solution to the Syrian crisis, by offering itself as a mediator in a dialogue between the opposition and the Syrian regime, Russia aims to reinforce its own political position. Primarily, it seeks to break the isolation imposed on it following the crisis in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, an isolation made clear in the absence of a request for Russian participation in the international coalition established by Washington to fight ISIL. The Russians seem keen to establish a common ground for cooperation with the West that could serve as a basis for the rehabilitation of its deteriorating relations. Since the chances of it making concessions on Ukraine are highly unlikely, Russia now believes that reactivating the Syrian issue can provide a common ground to work with the West.
At the same time, the Russian initiative might seek to create a new political approach to the situation in Syria, striving for an enhanced image of the Syrian regime, both politically and militarily. The names of the people invited to attend the Moscow meeting verify that Russia is keen to assemble a Syrian "opposition" that will accept the authority of Bashar al-Assad. Rather than working to select a new delegation to represent the Syrian authority, distinct from the one that participated in the Geneva 2 conference and contributed to its failure, the Russians aspire to create an “opposition” in line with the Syrian government’s perspective, one that would be compliant with continuing al-Assad’s rule and that would form, with him, a “national unity government” – thereby essentially bypassing the Geneva agreement.
Response of the Syrian Opposition
Not surprisingly, the Syrian regime was the only enthusiastic party willing to participate in the Moscow meeting. Across the entire opposition spectrum, the opposition unanimously voted against attending the proposed conference. The National Coalition opposition figures who had been invited (including Bader Jamous and Nasr al-Hariri) rejected the Russian invitation on the grounds that the text made no reference to the "formation of a transitional body with full executive powers," as stipulated by the statement issued from the Geneva 1 conference.
Moaz al-Khatib, former president of the National Coalition and the person whom Moscow had counted on the most to break the opposition to "dialogue” with the regime, issued a statement on behalf of the "Syria Homeland Group" refusing to attend the conference because of a lack of Russian seriousness and Russia’s failure to force the regime to put an end to the bombing and killing, and establish a basis for a political process that could lead to a transitional situation to save Syria.
Even traditional internal opposition figures close to Moscow expressed reservations regarding the Russian invitation. Hassan Abdul Azim, the General Coordinator of the National Coordination Committee, called on Moscow to pressure the regime to "take the lead in creating a favorable climate for dialogue to allow the opposition to feel confident, this time, in the regime’s seriousness, and have it begin the implementation of the six items of the former international Arab envoy, Kofi Annan’s Plan, as a goodwill gesture, particularly with regard to the release of political prisoners”.
The opposition’s “Building the state movement” continues to refuse to attend the Moscow conference because it has "no clear address, and no clear agenda for negotiation". However, the traditional opposition forces, given their structure and composition, their history and their presence in Syria in areas under the control of the regime, may cave in, depending upon the amount of pressure exerted upon them, and, especially, should the Russian Foreign Ministry threaten that those absent from the meeting would not have a role in the future of Syria.
Threats to the Syrian Cause
The Russian invitation poses two risks: it can be a prelude to the disintegration of commitments enshrined in the Geneva Declaration, and it could be a gateway for the recuperation of the Syrian regime and for diluting opposition to the regime. It would appear Moscow is keen to torpedo the Geneva Declaration and all former international effort and decisions, and establish in their stead a new phase whereby an opposition is formed to facilitate the "solution" favored by the Syrian regime. The unconditional participation of the Syrian opposition in a Moscow meeting outside of any political or legal framework means simply that the Geneva Declaration will be buried, and with it all the Security Council resolutions that provide for clear negotiations aimed at the specific goal of transition to a democratic political system, with the implementation mechanism of a transitional power structure invested with full authority.
Amid the changing international agendas (including those among the group of “Friends of Syria”) Moscow, with its current focus upon the fight against terrorism and extremism, finds itself faced with the opportunity to advance its fragmented vision and perceptions for an eventual resolution of the crisis in keeping with its ideas and interests, and with an opportunity to scupper any previous consensus reached by the international community.
Russia’s invitation might makes use of alluring expressions such as “open dialogue”, “comprehensive and direct national dialogue”, “participation of all Syrians”, and “dialogue without external interference in the sovereign affairs of Syria”, but its primary goal is to conduct cosmetic dialogue that spares the Syrian regime any international pressure to make good on its outstanding obligations, avoids its demise as an outcome of a comprehensive political solution, and contributes towards its recuperation via the promotion of new faces and personalities as leaders of the “opposition”.
Why the Russian initiative is bound to fail is down to many reasons, but primarily the key reasons can be summarized below:
- It meets none of the demands voiced by the Syrian people.
- It is exclusively aimed at meeting in Moscow under Moscow’s sponsorship – a political and military supporter of the Syrian regime – thereby diminishing the confidence of regional states and the Syrian opposition at large.
- It seeks a settlement between the Syrian regime and forces who are close to it, or of its own creation.
- It focuses upon "anti-terrorism", and does not address the fundamental issues which are: the formation of a transitional governing body, the role of the military and security services, and the future of Bashar Al- Assad.
- It contends with the absence of a clear position from the US, and with the invitation of Iran but no other regional and Arab countries active in the Syrian context.
Russia does not appear too confident in the success of its initiative but this does not mean that it will not make an effort to exploit the situation and change the West’s priorities, towards maturing a solution that is in line with Russian interests. Any effort to counter the Russian endeavor, however, can only be based upon upholding the framework of the Geneva Declaration as the basis for a political solution, particularly, given that it has been adopted in the text of Security Council Resolution 2118 as a reference for a comprehensive solution. It follows that acceptance of any other reference that does not entail this framework is tantamount to a waiver and rejection of this resolution.
Russia, on the other hand, cannot continue to find justification for its maneuvers in citing a “problem” with the representation of the forces of the revolution and the Syrian opposition, or the absence of a representative counterpart to the Syrian regime as a party to, and a qualified partner in, negotiations on the future of Syria. Many countries have now recognized the National Coalition as representatives of the opposition and of the Syrian people, and paragraph 26 of the decision of the United Nations General Assembly No. 262/67, of May 2013, welcomed "the establishment of the coalition as featuring panelists who are actually those forces necessary to the process of political transition.”
In order to counter such tactics, however, it remains critical that all opposition forces should be integrated in the coalition. This is the bare minimum of what is necessary to ensure coordination of opposition political effort. And from this stems the need to transcend this problem at the earliest opportunity, especially given the range of ideas and initiatives to rehabilitate the regime and circumvent the sacrifices made by the Syrian people in seeking to achieve democratic change and realize their aspirations for freedom and a decent life.
To read this document as a PDF, please click here. This Assessment Report was translated by the ACRPS Translaiton and English editing team. To read the original Arabic version of this document, which appeared online on January 20, 2015, please click here.
 See “The Situation in the Arab Republic of Syria”, United Nations General Assembly, via the link http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N12/494/30/PDF/N1249430.pdf?OpenElement