Resounding 'no' from the Syrian opposition to Moscow talks

Resounding 'no' from the Syrian opposition to Moscow talks
Although there was little hope of an end to the war with the Moscow talks slated for next month, Russia's handling of the meeting has angered the Syrian opposition.
7 min read
The war in Syria has destroyed large parts of the country such as Aleppo [AFP-Getty]

It looked as though the Russian government had managed to achieve the impossible this week, something that Europe, the Arab League, and the United Nations have been attempting for years.

It was suggested that discussions would take place between opposition parties and the Syrian regime in Moscow that might be a first step to ending the war.

However, denunciations from opposition groups about the Moscow dialogue meeting, slated for 26 January, began to trickle in.

Much of the anger was based on the invitations being issued to individual figures rather the political organisations they represent.

Stirring the pot

Al-Araby al-Jadeed has learned that the autonomous Kurdish administration, which runs the affairs of the Syrian-Kurdish region of al-Hasakah, is the only group that received a direct invitation as an independent entity.

Some Syrian revolutionary groups believe that this was a ploy to further fragment the opposition.

"Neither the coalition, as a political entity, nor any of its members have so far received an invitation to attend the meeting," said Nagham al-Ghadiri, a member of the political committee of the National Coalition for the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

She added that no one had told the coalition what Russia was expecting from the meeting.

"Almost all the coalition members reject the idea of going to Moscow, and the coalition can only go in its capacity as the representative of the revolutionary and opposition forces," she said.

"Even if a coalition member is invited, in their individual capacity, they should seek the permission of the political committee for participation."

     Al-Ghadiri insists that Moscow part of the problem for the crisis in Syria, and cannot become part of the solution.

Ghadiri insisted that Moscow was part of the problem in Syria, and cannot become part of the solution unless it ceases to aid Damscus and removes its "political cover" for the Syrian regime.

"Only then might [Russia] push towards a political solution based on the decisions of the Geneva II as terms of reference."

Russia has been one of the Syrian regime's closest allies throughout the conflict, providing military hardware, expertise, as well as political and moral support to Damascus.

Several United Nations resolutions condemning the actions of the regime have been vetoed by the Security Council member, and Russia continues to use its naval base in the Syria coastal city of Tartous.

Ghadiri went on to say that Russian envoy Mikhail Bogdanov did not present a proposal during his latest meeting with coalition members, which "proves" that the goal behind the Russian effort is only to revitalise the regime in Damascus.

"The rapprochement between the coalition and the National Coordination Body (NCB) has nothing to do with any international instructions," she said. "This was the outcome of a decision the political committee took around three months ago to hold a dialogue with all the opposition parties not represented in the coalition, including the NCB."

The NCB is a left-wing umbrella group based in Damascus, opposed to the rule of Bashar al-Assad.

Many opposition groups view the NCB with suspicion or accuse them of being part of the regime.

Ghadiri said her committee would examine an initiative presented by the NCB at the latest Cairo meeting when it next convenes on 2 February.

"Egypt is ready to contribute to solving any disagreement the coalition has with any other opposition side," she said. "Egypt is a country with influence in the region, and it, as we have learned from the Egyptian foreign ministry, supports the demands of the Syrian people in harmony with the coalition's vision."

Ghadiri said that Egypt also supports the coalition in its current arrangement, and any initiative for a political solution the coalition puts forward.

"Egypt never approved of any form of bloodshed, but the domestic situation prevented it from extending any humanitarian assistance," she said.

Opposition to the talks

Muath al-Khatib, a former coalition president, speaking to al-Araby, praised the rapprochement among the opposition forces.

"This is a key factor in changing the political equations and salvaging Syria from an extremely complicated situation," he said.

Burhan Ghalioun, also a former coalition president, has reportedly drawn up an initiative with Khatib and former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, who defected from the regime in a suprise move.

The plan would involve dissolving the blocs of the umbrella group, and cancelling membership quotas, which might bring a more unified opposition force.

"Dr Burhan and Dr Riyad are working actively, and we all share the opinion that the coalition should renew itself if it wants to perform a positive role and restore some of its prestige in the next stages," said Khatib.

"The priorities of any political solution in Syria should be based on eliminating the source of the problem, which is the lethal security system ruling our people."

Khatib said that, through negotiations, his group is trying to avoid Syria slipping into a "state of lawlessness".

Protests against the regime turned to bloodshed in 2011 [AFP]

One way to stop this, he said, would be for Assad to step down.

A plan put forward Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy for Syria, would ease the situation for civilians in Aleppo, he said.

"It would be partially useful for those exhausted by starvation and disease. But the strategy on which the initiative is based upon remains unknown, and it might be in favour of the regime only." 

Broad agreement

Assef Daaboul, a member of the NCB Executive Office, stressed that "Russia's pretexts for not inviting the Syrian political entities is tantamount to procrastination."

Speaking to al-Araby, Daaboul said: "It is extremely difficult to leave the Syrians on their own to find a solution without sponsorship or guarantees. We know that the regime is not serious, and cannot be trusted on any pledge."  

Daaboul said that several "parties" objected to the meeting, including the NCB, which called on Moscow to make drastic changes to the structure of the talks.

"We held talks with Russian diplomats in this regard," he said. "The Russians, who are the regime's allies, will not pressure the latter in a serious manner to solve the Syrian crisis."

The Russians are in "an international dilemma" after their marginalisation by the international community when their forces invaded parts of the Ukraine, said Daaboul. Moscow has been weakened politically by its failing economy - hit hard by low oil prices.

"That is why they are trying to achieve a breakthrough in the Syrian arena through this meeting, but they missed the target," he added.

No, no to Moscow

The NCB will not participate in talks brokered by Russia in their current structure, Daaboul said.

"It will be useless to hold or attend any dialogue if it is not a serious dialogue that involves the true opposition parties and produces results that benefit the Syrian people," he said.

Ziad Watfa, a member of the NCB Executive Office, said "the Russian effort did not at any moment rise to the level of an initiative, and what is on the table is not at all equal to what some called Moscow I, as an alternative to Geneva III."

In a statement to al-Araby, he said the Russian effort was nothing but a media phenomenon, lacking the resources to offer anything new.

"The Russians can't be shallow and without goals," he added. "They want to show that the regime is strong and that this is the situation of the opposition. 28 persons, half of them representing the regime, coming to Moscow to represent the Syrian people and the opposition."

Building the Syrian State is a group that is working towards the establishment of a democratic system in Syria through "peaceful means", although it is not part the larger opposition groups.

"What we have learned about the Moscow meeting does not indicate that there is a serious endeavour to solve the Syrian crisis, and the Syrian authorities do not seem to be serious about reaching a political solution," a source from the organisation told al-Araby.

The source criticised Russia's decision to send out invitations for the Moscow meeting to individuals and not groups.

He also spoke out against the continued detention by the regime of the group's leader, Loai Hussein, and the absence of an agenda for the meeting.

"All of the above so far indicates that the meeting will not produce anything new to end the Syrian crisis or mitigate its effect on the Syrians."

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.