The Middle East Channel

Syria's opposition must go to Geneva

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.

SUZANNE PLUNKETT/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Friends of Syria meet with opposition for talks in London

Arab and Western officials have begun a meeting in London on Tuesday with Syrian opposition representatives in efforts to encourage a "united position" and convince the opposition to participate in Geneva II talks. The U.S. State Department has said the emergence of the al Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is jeopardizing efforts for a negotiated resolution to the Syrian conflict. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said, "The longer this conflict goes on, the more sectarian it becomes." Additionally, he stressed the importance of a moderate opposition, "because if they don't have a role, then all the Syrian people have got left is a choice between Assad and extremists." The main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, is expected to decide on November 1 whether it will attend the proposed Geneva peace conference, although the largest faction within the coalition said it would not participate. The opposition has insisted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down. In an interview on Monday, Assad said he didn't see any reason why he shouldn't run for a third term in the 2014 elections. Additionally, Assad expressed doubt over the U.S. and Russian peace conference saying the "factors are not yet in place" for the initiative to be successful. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, though Assad had made recent gains, it did not assure him a place in a new Syrian government.

Headlines

  • A report issued by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch claims U.S. drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan may have broken international human rights law.
  • Polls opened across Israel Tuesday for municipal elections with races in Jerusalem, Nazareth, Elad, and Tel Aviv gaining attention, though Palestinians are expected to largely boycott.
  • Israeli forces killed Palestinian Islamic Jihad member Mohammed Assi, wanted for suspected involvement in a 2012 Tel Aviv bus bombing.
  • Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief said he plans to reduce cooperation with the United States to arm and train Syrian opposition forces in protest of U.S. Middle East policy.
  • A Qatari court has upheld a 15-year prison sentence for poet Mohammed al-Ajami who was found guilty of insulting the emir and anti-government incitement.
  • The EU has agreed to resume membership talks with Turkey in November after a three-year hiatus.

Arguments and Analysis

'Saudi Arabia and the UN Why the snub?' (The Economist - Pomegranate Blog)

"King Abdullah, now 89, is known for his occasional bursts of frank impatience. Frustration has been building in the kingdom for months, not to say years, over the perceived unreliability of its main ally for the past seven decades, the United States. But two recent straws have broken the camel's back. The Obama administration's sudden rapprochement with Iran -- a country the Saudis see as a hostile Shia power and their historical rival -- risks unravelling years of patient Saudi efforts at sustaining an anti-Iranian front. And America's shying away from military action to punish the Assad regime in Syria for its use of chemical weapons against civilians represents a possibly fatal fumble for the anti-regime team that Saudi Arabia strongly backs. Not only did the pro-rebel allies lose a golden opportunity to deliver a death-blow to Mr Assad, as the Saudis see it. American cowardice has legitimised the narrative of al-Qaeda-style radicals, who now threaten to take over the whole of the armed opposition force whose moderate wing the Saudis have assiduously -- and expensively -- cultivated.

The decision to reject Security Council membership may not simply reflect an angry fit of kingly pique, however. Saudi Arabia has always preferred closed-doors diplomacy to open forums. A seat on the UN council would have risked exposing, repeatedly and in full public view, the widening policy gap between the kingdom and its closest ally. This would not only represent a break with tradition, but could amount to a strategic mistake that could prove difficult to correct. As if the secretive Saudis needed reminding of the perils of greater scrutiny, deliberations at another UN body, the Human Rights Council, on October 21st, singled out the kingdom for criticism. Two leading watchdog groups, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, submitted excoriating reports, noting the country's failure to address discrimination against women and religious minorities, and persecution of dissidents."

'On the Ground With Syria's News Smugglers' (Matthew Shaer, The New Republic)

"In September, the United Nations released a report confirming that surface-to-surface rockets carrying sarin gas had indeed struck Ghouta. But it was the shaky, fuzzy videos -- carried by almost every Western news channel -- that captured the world's attention. Never before have we been so dependent on courageous citizens, rather than professional journalists, for what we know about a war. The motives of these amateur reporters, though, are varied and complex and often difficult to discern.

Syria is now the most dangerous country in the world for reporters: According to the Doha Centre for Media Freedom, at least 114 journalists have died there since the spring of 2011. Among the dead are seasoned correspondents like the American Marie Colvin, who was killed in Homs in 2012, and freelancers like the Frenchman Olivier Voisin, who was wounded in February near Idlib and later died in Turkey. Meanwhile, 16 foreign journalists are officially missing, along with an untold number of fixers and translators. Because of voluntary media blackouts -- enforced to avoid encouraging would-be kidnappers -- the real number is almost certainly higher.

As the conflict continues, Syria is becoming more dangerous still. By one estimate, there are now more than 1,000 rebel groups operating in the country, some secular and some -- such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS -- decidedly jihadist. Regime forces have pushed back the rebels in key areas, and the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, is often unable to protect reporters as it once did, or ensure safe passage through rebel-held areas."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

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