The latest reports in the international media suggest that Russia has been more successful than the Americans and the London (the core group of countries supporting the Syrian opposition) in delivering results with regard to the proposed International Conference on Syria. Damascus has apparently given the names of the persons who would represent the Syria in the Conference.
The Syrian Information Minister, Omran-al-Zohbi, may have been the one who conveyed the delegation names to Moscow but publicly he has said that the government would need further information about the Conference before it decides to participate. More importantly he has said that ‘Assad’s departure was not up for discussion” and that "The ones who decide who is president of the country, what form the government takes and how internal processes are carried out are the Syrian people and the ballot box”. The sentiment that the fate of the regime and the form of government should be decided by the ballot box is certainly unexceptionable and as democratic as can be but in the present circumstances seems to suggest that the regime may not be prepared for the sort of changes that the opposition and their supporters and to some extent the regime’s international supporters would want the conference to lead to.
On the other hand for the meeting of the Friends of Syria meeting planned by Jordan on the 22nd, the Syrian opposition or at least some elements of this disparate group have told the Jordanians that they will not attend. The Syrian National Coalition has announced that it will hold a 3-day meeting in Istanbul starting 23rd May at which they would elect a successor to Moaz-al-Khatib, form the interim government that Mr. Hitto had not been able to do and finally to decided on participation in the US-Russia proposed international conference.
Separately the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs is sponsoring a conference in Madrid in which, the opposition Syrian National Development Party and the opposition National Coordination Committee (NCC) will meet bringing together some controversial figures. There too the principal question will be participation in the international conference and if this is decided who should represent the opposition.
In the meanwhile within Syria, Mr. Hassan Abdul Azim, leader of the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria representing some 16 groups, based in Syria and apparently tolerated by the Syrian regime has indicated that having been invited by the Russians his coalition would attend the conference.
It is clear from the foregoing that there is no united opposition and no single figure or group that can authoritatively speak for the opposition at the conference or agree on the terms on which a compromise solution can be worked out with the regime.
It also became apparent at the UN General Assembly’s consideration of a Qatar- sponsored resolution on 15th May that the international community is also divided. The resolution was originally drafted to give Syria’s UN seat to the Syrian opposition recognised by the Arab League as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. This part of the resolution was dropped when it became apparent that it would have limited support. The resolution as passed by a vote of 107 in favour, 12 against and 59 abstaining called only for a transitional government in Syria, and went no further than welcoming the establishment of the Syrian National Council “as effective representative interlocutors needed for a political transition”. In August the resolution on Syria had garnered 133 votes in favour, 12 against and 31 abstentions. This drop in support was best explained by the South African representative who said that this resolution should have been held in abeyance until the proposed conference had been held and suggested that in blaming one side only the resolution could force President Assad to retreat to an uncompromising position. In this he was echoing the view of the Russian deputy Permanent Representative who, in the course of the debate called it destructive and harmful and one-sided blaming only the Syrian government even when UN investigations had recognised that the opposition was also to blame.
Clearly the increase in the number of abstentions on the resolution came from the feeling among the members that the resolution was pre-judging the outcome of the proposed conference.
It is also clear however that the supporters of the Syrian opposition do want to ensure that the conference results in the departure of Assad. After the agreement with Lavrov on the convening of the conference Kerry had said that the outcome would be Assad’s departure because Geneva-I had called for the new transitional government to be a consensus government and there was no chance of the opposition agreeing to Assad’s participation in such a transitional arrangement. Since then the American tone has hardened. At his press conference with Erdogan on the 16th May at the White House Obama said, echoing Erdogan’s earlier remarks that “we continue to try to mobilize the entire international community to put more and more pressure on Assad so that he recognizes that he is no longer legitimate and that he needs to go.”
When Lavrov and Kerry met in Sweden on the same day that the resolution was being adopted in New York there was no public expression of dissent by Lavrov who said he agreed with Kerry’s assessment that “within a short period of time, pieces will come together so that the world, hopefully, will be given an alternative to the violence and destruction that is taking place in Syria at this moment".
If there is a measure of acquiescence it can only flow from the apprehension that a prolongation of the war would result in the disintegration of the administrative structures that have survived the last two years of strife, bring the Islamic extremists even more into the lead in the opposition and throw the entire region into turmoil. Russia has good reason to fear that the rise of Islamic extremism would have its effect within Russia’s own Muslim regions. It has good reason to fear chaos in the wider Middle East. In that case Russia may find itself in sympathy with Obama’s remarks in the press conference with Erdogan that “we are able to move to a political transition in which the institutions inside of Syria are still functioning, but we have a representative, multiethnic, multi-religious body that can bring about democracy and peace inside of Syria.”
Russia and the US while very important are not the only players in Syria. On the regimes’s side we have Iran, which has indicated that it would attend the conference though it has not yet received a formal invitation. Foreign Minister Salehi has said that Iran can facilitate a dialogue between the government and the opposition in Syria.
But would it want a pro-Iran Assad to be removed? Would the Hezbollah, the pro-Assad Shia force from Lebanon not argue that their forces working with loyalist Alawite forces could create an Alawite enclave along Syria’s borders with Lebanon? Would Prime Minister Maliki view with equanimity the ouster of Assad and the triumph of the Sunnis who have strong connections with the Iraqi Sunnis Maliki is battling against in Iraq? Will the regional Sunni countries and private donors be easily persuaded to allow Assad and his closest aides a safe passage out of Syria? Will they accept a multi ethnic and multi religion society or will they seek a more orthodox Sunni regime?
In the face of these regional issues and concerns, can the Russians and Americans deliver? This is a question to which there is no easy answer. Adroit diplomacy and a sustained commitment to the cause will be needed and even then one must reluctantly concede that the prospects are dim. And yet even if the chances of success are 15% or less, as one observer put it, the effort must be made because there is no better alternative.
In my last article I had said that the death toll was 70,000. The UN Secretary General has now said that it exceeds 80,000. New routes for supplying the Syrianopposition with arms have now been opened through Jordan. Qatar is said to have expended $3 billion for providing arms to the opposition and assistance to the Syrian refugees. Now Saudi Arabia is apparently taking the lead in the supply of arms through this new route.
More carnage lies ahead and therefore any and every effort to find a solution no matter how hopeless it may seem must be pursued…