Syria’s opposition: Between a rock and a hard place

Friday 05/02/2016
Salim al-Muslat (C), spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) and Riad Naasam Agha, member of HNC

Russia’s decision to intervene militarily in Syria was aimed at changing the balance of power in the country or, at the very least, prevent the collapse of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.

The objective of the Russians’ intervention was not to secure a military victory over terrorism, as Moscow claimed. The true target was the Syrian opposition. Even if victory was out of reach, Russia wanted to prevent the opposition from being viewed as a credible alternative to Assad.

Moscow exploited the United States’ retreat from the Middle East by President Barack Obama’s ad­ministration, taking the initiative in the Syrian crisis while Washington stood idly by. The Obama adminis­tration had no desire to intervene in Syria and was happy to use Syria as a card in its negotiations with Russia and Iran.

Obama, who seemingly does not care how he is viewed in the Middle East, has consistently run away from dealing with the crisis. Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, sought the ini­tiative and is using Syria to reassert Moscow’s position in the Middle East and internationally.

Putin has taken control, ordering military operations on all fronts, backing up Russian air strikes with military “advisers” on the ground. These military operations started months before the Geneva negotia­tions and can only be viewed as an attempt to weaken the opposition’s position at the talks and back them into a corner.

Russia is seeking to tell Syrian opposition members that, one way or another, they must give in. Moscow wants the Syrian opposi­tion to believe that it must offer major concessions in order to join any national unity government which would take the oath of office in front of Assad in Damascus. Following this, there would be the drafting of a new constitution and parliamentary elections. Then — and only then — would there be an election for a new president.

This is the Russians’ desired out­come of the Geneva negotiations, in the absence of any US objec­tion, if, indeed, Washington does not lend its blessing to the entire project.

It is not even out of the ques­tion that Russia could use putative presidential elections to extend As­sad’s presidency on the pretext that eligible voters must be inside Syria, not in areas under Syrian opposi­tion control, virtually guaranteeing an Assad victory.

As for claims that the presence of UN or international observ­ers would prevent this, the only observers that Assad has allowed in to the country over the past five years come from the BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — and would represent nothing more than cover for Assad to extend his rule and reclaim inter­national legitimacy.

Otherwise the Syrian opposition finds itself facing the other option, namely the continuation of the fighting at a time when its backing is faltering and Russia and Iran are increasing their support of Assad’s forces. At the same time, Syria’s armed opposition is being squeezed by attempts to classify them as terrorists, with Russia refusing to integrate them into the transitional process.

Militarily, Russia’s targeting of the Syrian opposition is based on a scorched earth policy, with Moscow seeking not just to target the op­position but destroy anything that it could use, while Assad forces and Iranian militias sweep the ground.

The United States appears undis­turbed by the Russian approach, continuing to prevent Arab states from providing the Syrian opposi­tion with sophisticated weapons that would allow it to topple Assad, while failing to lift a finger follow­ing Russia’s direct military inter­vention in the country.

So it seems the moderate Syrian opposition is between surrender and exile. As for the Islamists, they may seek to join the Islamic State (ISIS) — the one force on the ground that Russia’s air strikes are not targeting. So will the Syrian opposi­tion acquiesce to Russia’s demands at Geneva or come up with an­other option, upsetting Assad’s and Moscow’s plans? Ultimately, that depends on the actions of those who claim to support the Syrian opposition.