The Syrian opposition circus comes to town

Sharmine Narwani
Sharmine Narwani is a commentator and analyst of Middle East geopolitics. She is a former senior associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University and has a master’s degree in International Relations from Columbia University. Sharmine has written commentary for a wide array of publications, including Al Akhbar English, the New York Times, the Guardian, Asia Times Online, Salon.com, USA Today, the Huffington Post, Al Jazeera English, BRICS Post and others. You can follow her on Twitter at @snarwani
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In January, the Syrian government will – ostensibly - sit across the negotiating table from ‘the Syrian opposition’ to decide on the structure and make-up of a transitional government that promises to end the 5-year Syrian conflict.

The ‘Syrian opposition,’ we are told by US Secretary of State John Kerry, will be selected by ‘Syrians’ and will therefore be ‘representative.’

“This is not about imposing anything on anyone,” Kerry remarked about the Vienna process, convened to broker a Syrian peace – which was negotiated by 20 countries, but without the involvement of Syrians.

“I want to be clear: the Syrian people will be the validators of this whole effort,” says Kerry again – lest we forget. This is just before he instructs us that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cannot hold any long-term position in Syria: “Asking the opposition to trust Assad or to accept Assad’s leadership is simply not a reasonable request, and it is literally therefore a non-starter,” explains Kerry from his non-Syrian perspective.

Incidentally, Kerry now also calls any Syrian demand for Assad to leave before the political transition “a non-starting position.” It appears that to be part of this ‘Syrian solution,’ you must first agree with Kerry’s many nuanced positions on Syria.

But back to the ‘Syrian opposition’ – those able negotiators who will represent the ‘Syrian people’ come January.

This is where it gets really confusing. The 20 non-Syrian countries participating in the Vienna process will ultimately decide 1. which Syrians will speak for the opposition at future talks, and 2. which Syrians will instead be labelled ‘terrorists’ to be slaughtered on the battlefield.

To whittle down the ‘Syrian opposition’ to a few dozen individuals that are ‘representative’ of Syrians, several meetings were held to fight it out - mostly in foreign countries.

The Saudis shrewdly tried to grab front-runner advantage for their favorite Syrians by hosting a highly-publicized meeting in Riyadh that cobbled together a 34-member opposition ‘turnkey solution.’

But several countries balked at some of the Riyadh-cooked opposition, which consists of groups or individuals they think should be on the ‘terrorist’ list instead of the negotiating table.

Others on the Saudi shortlist don’t appear to be ‘representative’ of anybody, let alone the ‘Syrian people.’ They include several former heads of the now widely-discredited Syrian National Coalition (SNC), once viewed by Syria’s foes as the country’s ‘legitimate’ government-in-exile.

These Riyadh-backed luminaries include ex-SNC President George Sabra, who gained his Syrian ‘legitimacy’ in 2012 from a whopping 28 votes cast by 41 Syrians - in Qatar.

They also include Khaled Khoja, who squeaked through as president of the now-rebranded ‘National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces’ with 56 votes out of 109 cast - in Turkey.

They also include the likes of Saudi-based Ahmad Jarba, who won his second term at the helm of the National Council in 2014 with 65 votes – also cast in Turkey. Jarba beat his only rival Riad Hijab by 13 whole votes. Hijab turned the tables on Jarba in Riyadh last week, however, when 34 Syrians chose him instead to represent them at peace talks in Vienna.

Hijab, of course, is best known as the highest-ranking official to defect from the Syrian government during this crisis. He was prime minister of the country at the time - and I was in Damascus sitting in a roadside café when the news of his defection first broke. It created quite a stir in the café: Half of the Syrian customers were asking “who is the prime minister?” while the other half were asking “who is Riad Hijab?”

Representative of the Syrian people? Not so much.

The ‘Terrorists’

There are two lists being drawn up per the agreement reached in Vienna: the first list is to decide the ‘Syrian opposition’ negotiators. Since 22 million Syrians will not be voting for their own representatives, this list will basically be ‘manufactured’ by a handful of influential foreign states via some frenzied horse-trading.

The second list created by the Vienna-20 will determine which Syrian opposition militias are to be designated as ‘terrorist’ organizations. It is understood that those who make this list will not be participating in any ceasefires. It is also understood that the groups on this list will be mowed down by the Syrian army, its allies and foreign coalition airstrikes – unless they flee back across the Turkish border, of course.

For years, Washington has insisted there are armed ‘moderate’ groups in Syria, but have gone to great lengths to avoid naming these ‘moderates.’ Why? Because if moderates were named and identified, the US would have to be very, very certain that no past, present or future ‘atrocity video’ would surface to prove otherwise. And the US could not guarantee this with any of the groups they have armed, trained or financed in Syria over the past five years.

The twenty countries involved in Vienna talks have already agreed that ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise) are on this list. The big question now is who else makes the cut. And in everyone’s sights first and foremost is Ahrar al Sham, a Turkish, Qatari and Saudi-funded extremist group whose backbone is a mix of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda.

Earlier last summer, when I queried the US State Department about how they viewed Ahrar, I was told: “The US has neither worked with nor provided any assistance to Ahrar al-Sham. The US supports moderate Syrian opposition groups."

Put it this way, if Ahrar were ‘moderates,’ they would have already received direct US assistance, so desperate has Washington been to find Syrian fighters to do their bidding. And influential Americans have worked overtime to whitewash Ahrar - to distance it from Al Qaeda and other extremists, even though Ahrar’s closest primary ground force ally is none other than Jabhat al Nusra.

This strange western-Turkish-GCC determination to mainstream radical Salafist militants was seen again in Riyadh in December, when Ahrar reps were invited to join the opposition deliberations. The group is reported to have signed on to the final Riyadh declaration, but this was later hotly disputed by its leadership inside Syria. Either way, Ahrar is never going to be comfortable with Vienna’s terms today – to do so will be to turn its guns on its comrades in Nusra tomorrow, and to renounce many of its core beliefs.

The Ahrar challenge is mirrored by many of the hundreds of militias fighting inside Syria right now. These are mostly Sunni Islamist fighters, who over the course of this conflict have become overtly sectarian, violent and intolerant. Are they terrorists? The Syrian state says yes, and so do its allies Iran and Russia.

And this leads us to why they are right.

Armed and foreign-backed

Whatever this Syrian crisis has been, a ‘revolution’ it is not. No revolution, borne from the heart of a genuinely popular insurrection, is financed, armed and trained by the enemies of a state. What has transpired in Syria for the past five years is a long-planned foreign conspiracy – in coordination with a small sliver of its nationals - to create regime-change on the back of the narratives of the ‘Arab Spring.’

The US military’s ‘unconventional warfare’ manual contains the blueprint for exactly this kind of regime-change operation:

But this is not the first time this trick has been tried in Syria. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood launched a similar operation from inside Hama and tried to replicate it nationwide. They failed and were wiped out by Bashar al Assad’s father, Hafez, who was not constrained by the threat of today’s foreign “humanitarian intervention” and “Responsibility To Protect” (R2P) doctrines.

The US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in their now-declassified 1982 report on Hama called the Muslim Brotherhood’s actions “terrorism,” and rightly so.

You cannot pick up arms against a central government, impose your will with weapons on population centers, blow up police stations, public transportation, bread factories, pipelines, waterworks, target your national army, human-shield yourself in mosques and schools, assassinate public and private figures – and imagine yourself anything but a terrorist. You are not fighting an occupation, where your right to self-defense is enshrined in law. You are fighting your state, and your state has an internationally-mandated legal duty to protect its nationals – from you.

Furthermore, no state would shelter you from lawful consequence if you were doing all these things at the behest of, and with material support from, an enemy state.

Syria’s largest militant opposition groups are - one and all - financed, armed, trained, supported by the United States, Great Britain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, France and a smattering of other states and nationals.

None of these groups belong at a negotiating table across from the Syrian government – for one, they do not represent ‘Syrians,’ they represent foreign interests.

Can Washington name a single of its own anti-government, US-based, armed militias that it would term “moderate?” If an enemy state was financing and arming a group of American citizens, what would the consequence be if this group burned vehicles, killed police officers, set banks ablaze?

Moderate or extremist, secular or Islamist, why should Syria’s foreign-backed armed groups sit at the table in Vienna? And, for that matter, why should Syria’s foreign-backed unarmed politicos represent ‘Syrians’ at talks either?

Foreign states that spent five years ignoring the many non-violent Syrian dissidents based in Syria who have spent decades in opposition - in order to manufacture a thoroughly unrepresentative, subservient, malleable and repressive ‘Syrian opposition’ that will serve their interests – should not be rewarded for their deeds in Vienna.

None of their hand-picked ‘Syrian opposition’ will do – these mini-tyrants, warlords and militants will just prolong Syria’s tragedy indefinitely.

Think of Vienna as a stage. Right now, several western powers are seeking a political solution in Vienna as an exit from the Syrian theater - because it has become too costly. The extremism of ISIS, terror threats on the home front, a flood of migrants and refugees, and the promise of indefinite chaos in the Middle East has created a new-found bargaining spirit in the west. For the west, Assad, the Russians and Iranians suddenly look like worthy partners today – able, potentially, to help negotiate a face-saving exit from the Syrian quagmire. It is no coincidence that the US pushed through a nuclear deal with Iran this year – or that Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are co-chairing the Vienna talks.

But in the east – in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar – Vienna represents potential defeat unless Assad goes. These states either believe they are facing down existential threats, or at best, political humiliations from which they are unlikely to recover.

This brings another level of complexity to the Vienna stage. Allies in east and west find themselves with vastly diverging interests. All are still looking to stack their hands with cards which can improve their fortunes at the table, but their militants in the Syrian field have been losing ground since Russian jets took to Syria’s skies. Their own anti-terror Coalition is being outed and shamed for its complicity with the very terrorists it purports to fight. And they still, five years on, cannot construct a cohesive ‘Syrian opposition.’

Vienna is unlikely to ever see a genuine Syrian political solution. But it could still act as a springboard for some new thinking. Think ‘terror’ first. Disarm militants, halt weapons transfers, shut down borders, besiege them in their strongholds, cut off their financing, sanction their supporters.

Many of these components were in last week’s UN Security Council Resolution 2254, co-sponsored by Syria, in a new twist. An important start.

Cooperate with the Syrian state; coordinate airstrikes, ground battles; share intelligence. This stage may yet arrive.

Finally, acknowledge the reforms that the state tried to implement in the first few months of the Syrian crisis – Syria shut down its military court at the same time that Jordan was establishing a new security court. Why was one derided and the other lauded? Provide the time and space – reconciliation takes time - for Syrians to gear up for new elections under international observation.

If a ‘Syrian opposition’ is the desired outcome, this can only come organically from inside Syria, when Syrians are no longer under the threat of violent conflict.

The alternative, of course, is this Syrian opposition circus that is gearing up for a fall in Vienna. You can pay these clowns through the nose, but you will never get a performance out of them.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.