For much of the last several months, news of the Syrian opposition has been vastly overshadowed by debate in the United States regarding a possible military response to the August 21 chemical weapons attacks in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, which there is strong evidence was perpetrated by Syrian government forces. With a military action no longer an option, in the run-up to the U.N. announcement of a Geneva II conference, various Syrian opposition politicians have managed to grab back some of the limelight as they jostle with one another, unilaterally declaring positions before the make-up of a negotiation team has even been discussed.
The Geneva II conference, likely to take place in November, is perhaps the last opportunity for the Syrian opposition to prove to the Syrian people that it has not forgotten them. Many Syrians, feeling utterly betrayed by the international community and the members of the opposition Syrian National Coalition alike, believe that to even attend the conference would be a complete waste of time. The Syrian opposition can and must prove them wrong.
First, we must renounce the language of distrust, and exclusion among the Syrian opposition when it comes to discussing political positions. Everyone is part of the Syrian tragedy. Some have paid dearly with their blood, the lives of family members, and wealth. Others have suffered less. However, President Bashar al-Assad clearly made all the Syrian cities equal in grief, pain, and tragedy, except those cities still under his control. Thus, when we discuss the Geneva issue, my position will, as long as I breathe, never change. Assad must step down. He must appear before a special court that will prosecute him for his crimes and his betrayal of the people of Syria, along with anyone else found involved in killing Syrians or shattering their dream of freedom and democracy.
Additionally, the Syrian opposition, both the National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), must show more respect for its responsibility for the displaced and homeless people of Syria. It is unacceptable that we are unable to provide answers to millions of Syrians about the end of the conflict, about when they will be able to return home, and about the fate of their sons and daughters held under barbaric conditions and tortured in the prisons of the Assad regime. We must have an answer for the besieged cities of Modamiya, Darayya, Eastern Ghouta, Homs, and other cities in which Syrian sons are starving to death. The opposition should show some sense of responsibility for all of this, especially now that a military victory by the FSA will be impossible to achieve without external intervention (which is no longer likely). After the international reaction to the chemical weapons attacks on August 21, Assad knew that a military response was coming. This is why he offered the historic deal relinquishing Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. The Syrian president presented a perfect scenario to the United States to avoid a military strike. Nonetheless, Assad has continued dedicating his resources to killing the Syrian people with traditional and non-traditional weapons. Therefore, the Syrian opposition should focus on the mechanisms that would encourage the international community to meet its obligations in Geneva.
The world has forgotten the Syrian people and left them to face their fate on their own. Using the political opportunity of Geneva, we must convince the international community to force Assad to commit to a serious mechanism for handing over power. Yes, he is unlikely to agree to, or carry out, these stipulations. However, Assad will only hear the international community if it speaks with one voice. Thus, the priorities of the Syrian opposition heading to the Geneva conference should be as follows:
- Avoid any side-battles regarding attendance or who will be in the Syrian delegation. Focus discussions on why we will go to Geneva. What can we get out of it?
- The first Geneva conference on Syria, in June 2012, agreed to the formation of a "transitional body with full authority." Frankly, the Arab media's constant use of the term "transitional government" to refer to this entity is baffling. It has, in fact, caused some to believe that the goal of the opposition is to assume ministerial positions next to Assad appointees at the expense of the blood of the Syrian people. The opposition must insist on forming a transitional council that Assad has nothing to do with at all. This council must enjoy full authority, including over the military and intelligence branches, and it must be trusted with the task of managing the transition until fair and honest elections can be conducted.
- The opposition should focus on formulating confidence-building measures that should be supervised by the United Nations. The release of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience should be handled entirely by the United Nations. It should receive from the Assad regime a list of all these prisoners in order to force the government to release them without any preconditions, and then keep track of these activists after their release. In this way, the Syrian opposition can gain the trust of the thousands of Syrian families that have had relatives held in the prisons of the Syrian regime. The United Nations should also be responsible for overseeing the lifting of the sieges of Ghouta, Modamiya, and Homs. This way, the international community will be responsible for monitoring the delivery of humanitarian aid to these regions. Finally, all states in support of the Geneva conference should commit to aiding in the rebuilding of the destroyed areas of Syria, giving affected families special and generous compensation for the suffering they have endured. Most of the opposition-held regions have been leveled. The political opposition must acknowledge the necessity of facilitating the return home of the millions of refugees and ensuring their safety and dignity. Syrians have never before been as humiliated as they are currently in the refugee camps.
These are the points the opposition must discuss, rather than members' "Syrian-ness" or who betrayed whom. The political opposition must act respectfully of the millions of refugees. It must also act intelligently so that it can get rid of Assad through political means. Additionally, the international community must respect its commitments to the transition.
Right now I don't see any other options. The FSA will continue with its battles but it will do so without achieving our goal, which is a free and democratic Syria. Unfortunately, military intervention seems unlikely given U.S. domestic political conflicts. Therefore the only option we have is to involve the international community through Geneva in a political path without giving up even one grain of sand that the FSA has won. But we must start a political front that enables us to see the light at the end of this Syrian road.
Radwan Ziadeh is executive director of the Washington-based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
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