On September 15, a large group of Syrian rebel factions issued a joint statement about the Syrian peace process initiated by United Nations special envoy Staffan de Mistura.
In June of this year, the Swedish-Italian diplomat presented his proposals for how to proceed before the UN Security Council. He told the council that he did not feel that a full agreement on peace and political transition was realistically achievable at the current stage. Rather than pursue an impossible goal, de Mistura said, he would temporarily sidestep the difficult issue of a political transition in Syria to focus on conflict management through joint working groups. While this could help to address humanitarian and other issues, de Mistura remained hopeful that the working group scheme could pave the way for transition talks in the future. The Security Council approved and endorsed the plan in an August 17 presidential statement.
The new rebel statement seeks to respond to these proposals and to outline a common position as de Mistura begins discussions with his interlocutors on the opposition side. It was drafted and approved during a two-day meeting in Istanbul on September 11-12.
I am told that the Istanbul talks were attended by representatives of 24 different armed groups. They included most of the large armed anti-government factions in Syria, with some notable exceptions: the terror-listed jihadis of the Nusra Front (loyal to al-Qaeda) and the self-proclaimed Islamic State, as well as the Kurdish militant groups that are linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Who Signed It?
The copy of the statement released to the press was signed by a total of 29 factions. This includes major Islamist groups like Ahrar al-Sham and the Islam Army, as well as more moderate Free Syrian Army factions, such as Suqour al-Ghab and Division 101. Most of these groups are mainly active in northern Syria, although there are exceptions like the Furqan Brigades (in the Houran-Golan region near Jordan) and the Islam Army (east of Damascus).
A person close to these armed factions who had insight into the drafting process tells me that the statement will also be backed by the Southern Front, a loose but large coalition of moderate rebels supported by Jordan, the United States, and other governments. I have not been able to confirm this.
However, once the statement had been issued, confusion ensued in classic Syrian rebel style. One purported signatory group, the Idlib-based Haqq Brigade, quickly issued a statement of its own saying that the text “does not represent our position” and that they had in fact left the meeting in protest.
At least one leader of Ahrar al-Sham has also claimed that the document was prematurely released before being fully approved by his group. According to the Islamist online journal al-Durur al-Shamiya, the Islam Army has also begun to back away. But the source with insight into the drafting process denies this. He says both groups did indeed sign the statement and that statements to the contrary do not represent the leaderships.
As of yet there has been no official comment from Ahrar al-Sham’s new leadership, but I have separately been told by sources in and close to the group that there were some “technical” issues that complicated the release of the document. These sources agree, however, that Ahrar al-Sham basically approves of its content. Media officials in the Islam Army did not respond to my attempts to contact them.
While it is still somewhat unclear at the time of publication, if all factions listed on the document prove willing to stand by their signatures, the September 15 statement certainly represents a critical mass of Sunni Arab rebels in northern Syria.
Endorsing the Geneva Communiqué
The statement is reproduced in its entirety below and readers are encouraged to read it for themselves. In my view, however, its key element is the fact that the signatories now seem to accept the basic approach of the United Nations, even as they remain suspicious of Staffan de Mistura’s new plan.
This is the first time that such a wide spectrum of rebel groups have officially endorsed not only a UN role in peace negotiations, but also explicitly stated that they are willing to talk on the basis of the Geneva Communiqué of 2012 (also known as Geneva I). This document, which has always formed the basis for the UN peace talks, was previously rejected by many of these groups, since it does not explicitly address the fate of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
For de Mistura and the UN, such a broad rebel endorsement of the Geneva Communiqué would seem to be a significant step forward. This document is likely to be at the center of attention as the UN special envoy seeks to engage rebel factions in talks on how to proceed; some members of de Mistura’s team are reportedly in Turkey now.
However, the September 15 statement also includes sharp criticism of Staffan de Mistura’s approach. Notably, it attacks his plan to create joint working groups as a preliminary step to a full transitional deal. The signatories also reiterate longstanding opposition demands, including that Assad must step aside and that the Syrian security apparatus be dissolved in full for any peace deal to be acceptable. These views are of course unacceptable to the Syrian government which remains just as intransigent about Assad’s future.
Even though the September 15 statement seems to represent progress of a kind for the UN negotiators, the remaining obstacles to peace in Syria are so numerous as to appear insurmountable. Staffan de Mistura has his work cut out for him.
An original Arabic version of the statement can be found here. Below we reproduce, without any alterations, the English translation kindly provided to Syria in Crisis by source close to the Istanbul talks.
Statement by the Syrian Revolutionary Factions
The representatives of the Syrian revolutionary fighting factions have met together and discussed the presidential statement by the UN Security Council issued on August 17, 2015, as well as the plan proposed by the UN envoy for Syria, Staffan De Mistura.
The meeting factions have acknowledged that the statement by the UN Security Council could provide an enabling environment for starting an objective political negotiation and trust-building among all parties.
The meeting factions have reached a consensus on the following:
1. We welcome the call to start a political process that leads to a political transition according to the Geneva Communiqué that stipulates establishing a transitional governing body that starts functioning as soon as an agreement on a solution is reached, and thus, performing all executive authorities, including those of the President of the Republic.
2. We emphasize the precondition of the departure of Bashar al-Assad and all the pillars of his regime, and that none of them would have a place or a role in the new Syria or the transitional phase. We consider this as a basic precondition for carrying out any political process.
3. Implementing the resolution 2139 that calls for all parties to stop waging any attacks against civilians; and to refrain from the indiscriminate use of weapons on the populated areas, in the manner that includes the indiscriminate bombardment and dropping explosive barrels on civilians, as well as the immediate stoppage of coercive indiscriminate detention, torture and kidnapping, as well as the immediate release of all detainees.
4. We emphasize the implementation of the UN Security Council resolution 2165 for the year 2014 that allows all parties in the Syrian conflict to convey the humanitarian aid immediately and without any obstacles, so as to deliver such aid directly to the people.
5. We reject overlooking and being silent about the terrorist groups that the Assad regime summoned to Syria and embraced, while they actually exercise genocide and forced displacements of population as well as introducing demographic change in Syria; such groups include the sectarian militias, the Iranian Republican Guards and the Lebanese Hezbollah. We call for listing these groups on the Terrorism Lists.
6. Respecting the will of the Syrian people; as the Syrians are the sole beholders of the power for founding the Constitution of the future Syria and approving each of its articles. This means that there should be no prior principles imposed on the people as a way for confiscating their free will.
7. We call for excluding Iran from any consultations concerning the Syrian cause, as Iran is truly red-handed with the blood of the Syrians, being a supporter of the terrorist militias, as well as acting to ignite sectarian strife among the Syrian people, in addition to the fact that Iran does not recognize the Geneva Communiqué as a reference (though this Communiqué has been fully supported by the UN Security Council resolution 2118)
8. We emphasize the continuity of the service-providing State institutions as a necessary and vital issue. And yet, we reject the continuity of the works of the army and security institutions. We call for dissolving the security apparatus and restructuring the army and the judiciary.
9. The UN Security Council stated that it is calling for holding political negotiations and achieving political transition on the basis of Geneva Communiqué. The establishment of a transitional governing body has been very clear and explicit in the Communiqué. And thus, we call the UN Envoy to engage directly into the implementation of the Geneva Communiqué in a manner that is surrounded with regional and international guarantees; all without reverting to any preempted measures or committees formed that would consume time and lead to the rendering of the Geneva Communiqué void of content.
10.We emphasize the necessity of having real guarantees that obligate to all parties to implement whatever is agreed upon; as the Syrian regime has been accustomed to non-commitment to all resolutions throughout the past five years.
11.The explicit grave Russian intervention on Syrian territory is undermining the efforts exerted to reach a political solution.
12.We call upon the UN and the UN Security Council to bear their responsibilities towards the Syrian tragedy, and to act seriously towards the implementation of the relevant resolutions in a manner that serves the interests of the Syrian people.
- Asala and Tanmeya Front
- Islamic Union of Ajnad al-Sham
- Nour El-Deen Zenki Movement
- The Sham Revolutionary Brigades
- City of Aleppo Brigades
- Al-Furqan Brigades
- Faylaq Al-Rahman
- Al-Arbaeen Brigades
- Islam Army (Jaysh Al-Islam)
- The Sham Front
- Al-Sultan Murad Division
- Al-Safwa Brigades
- Sukur Al-Ghab
- Al-Fawj Al-Awwal
- Division 13
- Division 101
- The Shami Front
- Faylaq Al-Sham
- Fursan Al-Haqq Brigade
- Tawhid Army (Jaysh Al-Tawhid)
- Seif Allah Brigade
- Ahrar Al-Sham Movement
- Liwa Al-Haq
- Shuhadaa Al-Islam Brigade
- Sukur Al-Jabal Brigade
- Division 16 Infantry
- Jaysh al-Mujahideen
- Jaysh al-Fateheen
1st of Dhul-Hijja 1436 Hijri – September 15, 2015