Syrian opposition's Doha conference: Much ado about nothing
Around 80 figures from the Syrian opposition met in the Qatari capital Doha between February 5 and 6 to discuss ways to reorganise the opposition and make it more effective at the international level.
After months of speculation on what could come out of the event, it seemingly turned out to be the umpteenth conference with no tangible results.
Dim prospects for the opposition
Almost 11 years after the outbreak of the uprising, the Syrian opposition remains fragmented, with the legitimacy of its representatives widely questioned inside and outside Syria.
Its ability to impact military developments on the ground is limited to those territories located along the Turkish border that are politically aligned with the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), the main bloc backed by Qatar and Turkey.
The most effective political bargains are often between actors on the ground – not political platforms in Geneva, Doha, or Ankara.
Since Russia intervened militarily in support of the Syrian regime in 2015, opposition forces have lost most of their territories. The remaining opposition-held territory is primarily held by two actors: the US-backed Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and the Salvation Government linked with former al-Qaeda affiliates from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in the north-west of the country.
As for the international opposition, the Egypt-backed Cairo Platform and the Russia-backed Moscow Platform, have emerged over the past years, articulating a reformist agenda that does not seek to overthrow the Syrian regime, unlike their competitors based in Qatar and Turkey.
"Around 80 figures from the Syrian opposition met in the Qatari capital Doha between February 5 and 6 to discuss ways to reorganise the opposition and make it more effective at the international level"
The bodies do not have any military impact on the ground but are represented together with the SOC in the Syrian Negotiating Committee (SNC), an umbrella group tasked with negotiating with the Syrian government over the drafting of a new constitution in UN-brokered talks.
The legally binding framework of these negotiations is UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2254, which envisions a yet-to-materialise political transition for Syria.
These diplomatic talks have registered no progress at all since they began in 2019, while parallel talks held in Astana (Nur-Sultan) in Kazakhstan between Turkey, Russia, and Iran were able to bypass Syrian stakeholders and draw the current fault lines of Syria’s partition.
As if the picture was not dim enough for the Syrian opposition, a number of Arab states have recently started to normalise ties with the Syrian government, in a further confirmation that the tide has turned in favour of the Assad regime. Most US and EU sanctions on Syria remain in place but NATO allies have long lost any appetite for overthrowing Assad.
It is against the backdrop of these developments that the Doha initiative had nurtured some expectations and had been partially understood as an attempt to rescue the opposition.
A new opposition body?
Riyadh Hijab, a former Syrian prime minister who defected to the opposition and the former SNC head, took the front stage in the event. Several observers understood his initiative as a challenge to the SOC and the SNC.
Some media reports went as far as suggesting that a new platform born out of Hijab’s initiative could have replaced the SOC and triggered a reshuffle in the composition of the SNC.
The conference did not result in any shakedown of the opposition though.
Burhan Ghalioun, a France-based academic and the former head of the SOC’s forerunner, the Syrian National Council, told The New Arab that there was “no initiative to set up a new opposition body”. Although Ghalioun did not respond whether he had attended the event, The New Arab obtained a list of invitees of the conference that includes his name. It was not possible to verify the authenticity of the list.
The list also includes some military officials, such as former Free Syrian Army (FSA) Chief of Staff Salim Idriss and Dubai-based Maj. Abu Usama al-Joulani, a former FSA Southern Front officer.
Other media reports had suggested that opposition figures that are members of the Egyptian-backed Cairo Platform, such as the head of the Tomorrow Movement, Ahmad al-Jarba (also a former SOC president), would have played a role in reshaping the opposition at the Doha conference.
On 16 January, Jarba met the Qatari FM in Doha, as a member of a delegation that included SNC President Anas al-Abdeh and SOC President Salem al-Muslet. Given Jarba’s good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the visit could have been interpreted as a Qatari endorsement of his participation in the upcoming Doha conference, and possibly in a new opposition body.
Jarba could be seen as a conduit for broadening support for an emerging opposition bloc, potentially expanding the pool of regional backers beyond Qatar and Turkey. He also heads the Peace and Freedom Front, a coalition that includes the Kurdish National Council (ENKS), the main Syrian ally of Turkey-backed Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani.
But Jarba was not invited to the Doha conference in the end, according to Tomorrow Movement Political Bureau Member Wasef al-Zab. “There is no contact between the workshop’s organisers and... Ahmad al-Jarba and we have nothing to do with the meeting,” al-Zab told The New Arab.
The leaked list of invitees mentions Jarba as one of the political figures that allegedly turned down the invitation. Looking at the other names mentioned in the document, it is noteworthy that most members of the Cairo and Moscow platforms appear to have turned down the invitation.
The Covid-19 pandemic certainly played a role in limiting freedom of movement, but if the event was supposed to bring together a diverse range of opposition figures under a new political entity, it does not seem to have gone that far.
"Almost 11 years after the outbreak of the uprising, the Syrian opposition remains fragmented, with the legitimacy of its representatives widely questioned inside and outside Syria"
No dialogue with other non-state actors
Looking at the list of recommendations published at the end of the event, it seems that the opposition does not intend to change its political agenda for the time being. For example, Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose Syrian wing (the Democratic Union Party, PYD) is the de-facto ruler of northeastern Syria, is described as “a cross-border separatist sectarian terrorist organisation”.
This stands as a clear indication that there is no intention to engage in talks with the US-backed AANES and that the opposition continues to prioritise its relations with Ankara over Washington. It also means that the opposition will continue to rely on Turkish military forays into the northeast to secure access to Syria’s hydrocarbons and wheat reserves, which are mostly under AANES control.
This is set to exacerbate ethnic tensions between Arabs and Kurds in the region. The lack of a diplomatic channel with the Kurdish-led administration could weaken the opposition’s leverage in negotiations with the regime.
At the moment the Kurds are in fact engaged in on-again-off-again talks to reach a separate settlement with Damascus, while not being represented in the UN-backed constitutional committee.
Further, it likely means that the split between Syria’s mainstream opposition and AANES will continue, undermining the legitimacy of the UN-led Constitutional Committee process. If the AANES, the US’s main patron in Syria and the actor controlling the biggest portion of Syria second only to the regime, is excluded from the talks, the success of said talks is unlikely.
In a further sign that the international opposition is divorced from actors on the ground, the concluding statement of the conference does not even mention the HTS-linked Salvation Government. HTS is partially made up of former al-Qaeda affiliates, but is also the third-largest actor in Syria.
Engaging with HTS entails not just logistics and humanitarian aid, but also human rights concerns. HTS regularly arrests and tortures activists and journalists; by omitting its stance on HTS, the international Syrian opposition sacrifices any leverage it has to promote human rights in HTS-held territories.
If the international opposition is truly aiming for a nationwide political settlement, it cannot ignore the AANES, or HTS. Both groups need to be reckoned with if politicking in foreign capitals is meant to translate to improving the material conditions of Syrians stuck in the country.
Can the opposition save itself from irrelevance?
In addition to the set of recommendations, the conference also concluded by repeating that it is aiming to achieve "a political regime free of Assad and his regime”. The rhetoric is standard fare and has been the nominal aim for the Syrian opposition for the past 11 years.
However, the world is a very different place than it was 11 years ago. While the Assad regime has not changed its behaviour and continues to regularly commit war crimes against Syrian civilians, the international community has lost interest in condemning this behaviour.
The international community is seemingly in the process of accepting Assad back into the fold, where he will gain the same moniker as his father, Hafez, as the “devil we know”. Donors' concerns are moving towards early recovery and giving humanitarian access to the millions of displaced civilians within Syria.
"While the international opposition holds the moral high ground, this has thus far not translated into making a tangible difference for the Syrians within Syria"
In the face of this, the international Syrian opposition has not changed its tone, continuing to espouse the same maximalist rhetoric from years past.
While the international opposition holds the moral high ground, this has thus far not translated into making a tangible difference for the Syrians within Syria. Barring a significant re-engagement of the international community with the Syria file, there is little reason to think this will change.
How could the international opposition help support Syrians within Syria itself? The answer could lie in expanding its mandate for the sake of short-term concrete achievements, such as humanitarian relief and security maintenance. This would not come at the expense of its current political advocacy under UNSC 2254.
“UNSCR 2254 continues to have a high degree of international legitimacy, but the opposition has to find a sweet spot between keeping the resolution’s spirit alive and putting the weight it has behind pragmatic arrangements on the ground,” Lars Hauch, an independent researcher, told The New Arab.
Examples of such pragmatic arrangements include “security along the internal borders, travel regulations, trade agreements and access of aid,” Hauch said. For instance, the international opposition could mediate between humanitarian actors and HTS to facilitate relief efforts in Idlib, as widespread concerns about aid diversion continue to hinder the delivery of much-needed assistance.
Whether the Syrian international opposition decides to expand its mandate or promote some sort of internal reform, it seems clear that some movement is needed to once again make it a relevant actor.
William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean.
Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou
Andrea Glioti is an Italian journalist and researcher who has been covering Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and the Arab-majority Gulf since 2010. He speaks Arabic and Kurmanji Kurdish.
Follow him on Twitter: @andreaglioti