One of the most obvious structural flaws with the Geneva II meetings on peace in Syria, which continue today in Switzerland, is that the opposition delegation does not truly represent Syria’s armed uprising. It is hard enough to make peace between enemies, but it is harder still if one side of the war is not represented at the peace talks.
Most of Syria’s large rebel groups have explicitly distanced themselves from the Geneva talks. These include the large Islamist alliance known as the Islamic Front, the country’s main Kurdish militia, and radical jihadi groups such as the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Even so, it would be an oversimplification to say that the opposition delegation has no support at all among Syria’s armed factions—there is some.
Military Components of the National Coalition
The opposition delegation is led by members of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a political body that has been recognized by a number of Western and Arab states.
On January 22, the National Coalition presented its delegation to Geneva II. While this delegation is mostly made up of political exiles drawn from the National Coalition leadership, it is complemented by seven (in some versions, four) representatives of military forces inside Syria, none of whom have been named.
In addition to this, some members of the Geneva delegation serve in a dual politico-military role. For example, one of the National Coalition’s negotiators is Nazir Hakim, who heads the Muslim Brotherhood–backed Coalition for the Protection of Civilians (CPC). The CPC began as a network to finance and arm rebel groups, but it quickly evolved into a Brotherhood-linked military alliance. While it is not one of the biggest players in the insurgency, CPC-linked units do have a measure of influence in places such as Homs and Aleppo.
The peace talks are also supported by the National Coalition’s military wing, the Supreme Military Council (SMC) of Lieutenant General Salim Idris, which is represented in the Geneva delegation by Ahmed Jaqal.The SMC was established with Gulf and Western backing in December 2012 to serve as a leadership and unified support channel for the amorphous Free Syrian Army, an armed opposition force. However, it never managed to move from arms distributor to insurgent leadership, and it is now in disarray after the formation of the rival and much-larger Islamic Front on November 22 and the subsequent disputes around the strategic Bab al-Hawa border crossing in December.
Even so, the SMC’s funding apparatus and its state sponsors retain links to many armed factions inside Syria. And although Idris is no longer publicly backed except by small- and medium-sized groups (such as the CPC), and few of these groups seem eager to publicly support the Geneva II process, many can be expected to play along—or at least not to oppose it.
Claims of Rebel Endorsement of Geneva II
On January 18, a few days before the Geneva II meetings began, National Coalition spokesperson Louay Safi claimed that several Islamist rebel organizations, including the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF), the Mujahideen Army, and a group called Jund al-Sham (also known as the Suleiman Fighting Company), all wanted “to have some representation within the delegation.” Safi also said that the Islamic Front was deliberating whether to attend or not, despite its repeated public denunciations of the Geneva II process.
The SRF and the Mujahideen Army (which is apparently funded in part by the CPC) are relatively significant, recently organized coalitions of guerrillas with SMC links. They are mainly active in the Idlib–Hama region and Aleppo, where they have played a key role in battles against the ISIL that erupted on January 3.
The smaller Jund al-Sham, also based in Idlib and Hama, is part of this same network of SMC-linked northern factions. It is also in conflict with the ISIL, which executed Jund al-Sham’s leader, Abu Suleiman al-Hamawi, on January 5. (It should not be confused with a Lebanese-led jihadi faction in Homs, which is also called Jund al-Sham.)
The Ankara Meeting
Louay Safi’s comments came at the close of the National Coalition’s January 17–18 meeting in Istanbul, where it finally decided to participate in Geneva II. At the same time, another meeting took place outside the media spotlight in Ankara that brought together the SMC with rebel leaders from the SRF, the Islamic Front, the Mujahideen Army, and other groups. Turkey and Qatar, which co-sponsored the meeting, apparently demanded from the assembled rebel commanders that they endorse the National Coalition delegation or at the very least tone down their opposition to the Geneva II talks.
Some of the participants may have been convinced, and some commanders may be more encouraging of Geneva II in private than they are in public. But several major factions have continued to protest the Geneva II talks even after the Ankara meeting ended, including some of those listed by Safi as being behind the National Coalition’s participation.
On January 20, a joint statement by the Islamic Front, the Mujahideen Army, and the Islamic Ajnad al-Sham Union (a large rebel coalition in the Damascus area) again refused to support the Geneva II talks. While this refusal was couched in much more guarded terms than previous statements—in October, the same commanders had called the Geneva II talks “treason”—it placed conditions on any political solution that were so stringent as to be unworkable, essentially demanding the regime’s capitulation as a precondition for peace talks.
Support Is Weak But Not Absent
It is safe to say that almost all of the truly important rebel groups in Syria have now either distanced themselves the Geneva II process or condemned it outright.
Some of them could perhaps be brought on board a peace process later on, with the proper combination of carrot and stick, but others will go down fighting against any compromise solution. It is also true that those groups that apparently did line up behind the National Coalition delegation to Geneva II, like the SRF and the Muslim Brotherhood–linked factions, seem to have done so more to please their allies and funders than out of any sincere faith in the Geneva II process.
But even so, simplifications should be avoided. It is not fair to say that the National Coalition delegation at Geneva II is entirely without armed support—just that this support pales in comparison to the opposition.