Vienna peace process: opportunities and challenges for Syrian opposition

Vienna peace process: opportunities and challenges for Syrian opposition
Comment: Vienna's Syria peace process launched in October presents opportunities and challenges for the Syrian opposition, which must close ranks before negotiating with Damascus, argues the latest analysis by ACRPS
8 min read
Neither the Syrian regime nor the Syrian opposition were invited to the Vienna talks [Anadolu]

Almost a week after the first Vienna meeting on Syria was held by the foreign ministers of the United States, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, a second round of the Vienna talks held on 30 October 2015 was able to produce a nine-point statement, outlining the broad features of a peace plan for Syria.

The meeting had been expanded to include all countries involved in the Syrian issue, including Iran.

The third Vienna round, held on November 14, 2015, bringing together 20 countries and international bodies, produced a roadmap complete with a timetable for a political solution in Syria.

The roadmap would follow two tracks: a political process to put an end to the five-year-old conflict; and a military track to unify regional and international efforts against extremist and terrorist groups.

Parallel paths

Choosing two parallel tracks for a solution was a compromise reached between the multiple powers involved in the Syrian crisis, after recasting the Russian peace plan for Syria.

Russia was able to exploit the Paris attacks, claimed by IS, the day before, to impose its vision on the participants.

True, Russia was able to exploit the Paris attacks, claimed by IS, the day before, to impose its vision on the participants. Russia thus made fighting terrorism the focus of the efforts to resolve the crisis in Syria.

The Vienna statement called on the countries involved to identify terrorist groups in Syria, tasking Jordan to prepare a list of these groups, with the help of the intelligence services of the other countries taking part ahead of the political process.

The Russian proposal, however, was amended to accommodate the positions of the countries that back the Syrian opposition. Thus, a political track, without which no efforts to fight terrorism can ever succeed, was also agreed in addition to the counter-terrorism track.

According to this approach, terrorism is a result, not a cause of the conflict in Syria.

To be sure, were it not for the brutality of the regime in suppressing the peaceful revolt, including by using chemical weapons and working with Iran-backed sectarian militias, terrorism would not have spawned and proliferated, striking in distant capitals.

The political process in question has three main phases, ending in December 2017.

The first phase would see political negotiations launched in early 2016, with a view to reaching an agreement on a ceasefire.

The next two phases would focus on establishing a credible, all-inclusive and non-sectarian government, in parallel with constitutional reforms and elections, both legislative and presidential, supervised by the UN.

These elections would include both the Syrians at home and the refugee population abroad.

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'Favourable climate'

In the five years since the start of the Syrian uprising, in the absence of any credible political process, regional and international powers involved in Syria have been keen to disallow any breach of the balance of military power on the ground in Syria.

The powers that back the opposition immediately stepped up their support for the rebels, thwarting Russian plans.

No side has allowed its allies to be defeated, or its opponents to triumph.

This was clear even after direct Russian involvement alongside the Syrian regime. The powers that back the opposition immediately stepped up their support for the rebels, thwarting Russian plans to induce fundamental changes in the balance of power.

The failure of the Russian intervention to achieve this, coupled with Russia's fear of a protracted war of attrition in Syria, encouraged Moscow to seek to revive the political process that had been stumbling since the Geneva meetings.

There were other conducive developments that pushed Russian President Vladimir Putin to work preemptively to impose his conditions for a solution in Syria.

For example, the resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue signalled a reconfiguration of the regional and international landscape. Another factor has been the approaching presidential election in the United States.

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime seemed to be on the verge of collapse, as it became clear Iran and its allies had failed to alter the situation on the ground.

Russian diplomacy successfully exploited the ineffectiveness of the international coalition led by Washington against the Islamic State group (IS), using this as a pretext to intervene in Syria, and now, to impose a political solution, having become an essential player in Syria.

In addition, the failure of the efforts led by UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura forced him to abandon his unacceptable proposals, which included a partial freeze of hostilities while overlooking the causes of the conflict.

The goal of fighting IS, which is shared by both Moscow and Washington, has also been a catalyst for launching the Vienna process.

However, some of the most important contentious issues have been kicked down the road. These will be ticking time bombs that could detonate the entire political process.

At the forefront of these issues is the future of Bashar al-Assad, his participation in any upcoming election, his role in the transition and his powers and relationship with the army and security services.

Furthermore, the problem of classifying terrorist groups will also be a major challenge. Already, Russia and Iran are trying to include most rebel factions in the list of terrorist organisations, amid a suspicious American silence.

The options of the Syrian opposition

The armed Syrian opposition faces today the challenge of confronting the Russian-American accord on overcoming the so-called Assad Knot, pushing in the direction of a solution whose features remain vague.

At the same time, there are consistent Russian-led attempts to alter the balance of power on the ground, capitalising on the global mobilisation against terrorism, in the wake of the wave of terrorist attacks staged by IS.

The goal of fighting IS, which is shared by both Moscow and Washington, has also been a catalyst for launching the Vienna process

The armed Syrian opposition must also simultaneously ward off all attempts by Iranian, Lebanese and Iraqi militias to advance under Russian air cover, on the one hand, and similar attempts by IS, on the other attempts, not to mention the Syrian regime's barrel bombs.

Yet the upcoming political battle that the opposition has to fight seems to be just as brutal. For one thing, the Syrian opposition - and the regime - has been excluded from the Vienna talks. Its role has been confined to negotiating over the implementation of the solution, rather on its fundamental premises.

Meanwhile, the Islamist factions of the opposition face the prospect of being classed as terrorist groups, if they reject the path agreed by the US and Russia.

The situation has been further compounded by inviting motley forces of the Syrian opposition to a conference in Riyadh in mid-December.

Indeed, one fears that these forces end up locked up in protracted negotiations among themselves, let alone with the regime.

Yet putting together a unified opposition delegation might be easy compared with negotiations that so far have no clear premises or boundaries, with a regime that has become more intransigent since Russia's intervention.

For this reason, efforts in Riyadh should focus on establishing a strong opposition structure that would act like a parliament representing various opposition forces, and a liberation army that includes all factions, in addition to an elected executive committee that would then form a delegation to negotiate on the opposition's behalf.

The opposition's negotiating team would thus emanate from a unified opposition structure committed to previous agreements signed by opposition factions, led by the Cairo Statement.

Otherwise, the delegation would be non-harmonious, and it would be unable to tackle a dictatorial regime with conflicting attitudes.

Efforts in Riyadh should focus on establishing a strong opposition structure representing various opposition forces

Accordingly, the Syrian opposition faces a huge test.

Either it will manage to unite its efforts and ensure all factions coordinate in full, politically and militarily, ahead of engaging in the political process; or any party that objects could end up on the list of terrorist organisations, which will be used to blackmail all parties.

It follows that the Riyadh conference is an opportunity for Syrian opposition forces to close ranks, and prevent international powers from imposing their agenda and choosing the delegation that will negotiate with the regime.

Already, there have been lists leaked of names the international powers want to have in the opposition delegation, in a manner that is degrading to the Syrian people and their sacrifices.

The conference could also be an opportunity for the opposition to improve its negotiating hands, politically and militarily, since the Vienna accords remain inconclusive.

Ultimately, Iran could not thwart the Vienna conference, which enjoys international support.

The conference has set in stone the pivotal role of the forces backing the revolution in Syria in resolving the conflict, denying any one side the ability to impose its conditions unilaterally.

In other words, it is now impossible to reach a solution that does not accommodate the interests of the Syrian opposition forces and the countries that back them.

Final note

The Vienna plan marks a new phase in the Syrian crisis that could lead to a genuine political process. However, regional and international forces may still be able to obstruct it.

Differences continue over the fate of Bashar al-Assad and his role in the transition, and over the issue of terrorist groups, not to mention issues like the ceasefire.

In truth, a ceasefire in Syria remains an extremely complex issue, given the sheer number of factions on the ground, and the difficulty of establishing clear lines of demarcation in some areas.

However, since the Vienna process is the only viable path today for resolving the conflict, we expect that the coming phase will see an intensification of diplomatic efforts in support of the Vienna roadmap.

In all cases, regardless of the prospects for Vienna's success, the Syrian opposition must establish unified political and military bodies, as well as a parliament and an executive committee.

The Arab Centre for Regional Studies is a research institute focused on the social sciences and geopolitical movements.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.