As the Geneva II conference for peace in Syria reconvenes in Switzerland, there is little apparent change on either side of the conflict—but that is not to say the peace process has been without effect.
The first round of negotiations, which ran between January 22 and January 31, made no progress on the political track despite having ostensibly been convened to discuss “a transitional executive body.” But there was some limited movement on humanitarian affairs, such as last week’s evacuation of civilians from the old city of Homs, a sealed-off area that the government has been trying to starve into submission. The UN and the Red Crescent had been pushing for access to Homs for a long time, and the Geneva talks seem to have facilitated this development by putting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad under Russian and other pressure to show signs of goodwill.
The Mujahideen Army and Ajnad al-Sham
Most rebels have greeted the Geneva II talks with skepticism and hostility, but two medium-sized Islamist coalitions now seem to be fine-tuning their line. This may be a result of pressure from foreign sponsors like Saudi Arabia that want their Syrian clients to fall in line on Geneva II, or it may reflect an increased need for international support in the coalitions’ struggle against the jihadi faction known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The Mujahideen Army was formed by several factions on January 3 to combat the ISIL in areas around Aleppo and near the Turkish border. Further south, a big bloc of Damascene Islamists has also recently merged to create the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, building on earlier unity efforts in the capital.
These two rebel coalitions had previously seemed hostile to the Geneva II process. In late October, most of the groups that would later form the Mujahideen Army signed a statement declaring the planned Geneva II talks to be “treason.”
On January 20, just before the Geneva talks began, the Mujahideen Army and Ajnad al-Sham jointly signed a statement with the much bigger and more hardline alliance known as the Islamic Front. It was apparently issued in response to last-minute efforts by Qatar and Turkey to get the Syrian rebels to support the Geneva II talks or, at the very least, to stay silent while they went on. No such support was forthcoming in the January 20 statement, although the signatories took a step back from their previous talk of “treason.”
A Newfound Lack of Clarity
On February 8, the Mujahideen Army and Ajnad al-Sham released a statement of their own, without the Islamic Front. Like their previous communiqués, this one was dominated by angry attacks on the Assad government and distrust of the Geneva II process. But reading between the lines, there are some potentially significant differences between the positions of January 20 and February 8.
In the February 8 statement, the two groups note that “we held silent during the negotiating period in order to see if it might produce some beneficial results, only to find ourselves bombarded,” and they repeat that “we have not entrusted any party with the right to negotiate with the criminal regime.” But they do not say that the exile opposition must refrain from going to Geneva II. Rather, they demand that it bring back results, including “a pledge from those countries supporting the Assad regime to fully halt all forms of shelling in all areas of Syria,” an “end to the forced displacement of civilians,” including in Homs, “the release of detained women and children,” and “the complete lifting of blockades in all parts of Syria, without exception.”
Both the Mujahideen Army and Ajnad al-Sham must know that these demands are not realistically achievable, but that is probably beside the point. The groups are saying that the talks may continue as long as the opposition members in Geneva strive for real gains on the ground, even if these gains do not result in Assad’s overthrow. The groups are not quite endorsing the talks and they are clearly distancing themselves from any suggestion that they could be held responsible for their outcome. But they are keeping their options open and allowing the proceedings to go on for another round, even while sticking to their guns in formal terms. Such newfound ambiguity can hardly be unintentional, and it is not insignificant.
The Islamic Front Still Says No
Notably, the Islamic Front did not take part in the February 8 statement. Its refusal of the Geneva II process is deeply rooted, since the Islamic Front was founded partly in reaction to the plans to convene a peace conference of this kind.
In an interview with Syria in Crisis, a member of the Islamic Front’s political leadership who goes by the name of Abu Omar insists that it has not changed its position on Geneva II. “This is a criminal regime,” he says, “and the international community should be dragging it to a war crimes trial rather than to the negotiating table.”
However, even the Islamic Front accepts the humanitarian initiatives in Homs, despite their link to Geneva II. According to Abu Omar, “we welcome any honorable solution that puts an end to the suffering of Syrians, regardless of whether it issued from Geneva II or from something else.” But he doesn’t feel that the Homs evacuations are enough to sway his view of the Geneva process, arguing that they are so limited as to represent “a devastating failure for a conference whose organizers had said it would result in a transitional government.”
The Power of Politics
Abu Omar may well be right about Geneva II, but the fact that politics have suddenly reentered the Syrian conflict is obviously having an effect on opposition attitudes.
The discreet softening of the Ajnad al-Sham and Mujahideen Army position, if that is indeed what it is, is no watershed event. It does not mean that the talks are now backed by much of the rebellion. To the contrary, all of the truly powerful groups still publicly oppose Geneva II, and those groups that do not condemn the talks outright are still criticizing them—albeit less forcefully and with a distinct hint of intentional ambiguity.
Still it is change, of a kind, and a heartening reminder that despite the radicalization and despair that has set in on the opposition side, some combination of international pressure and real political opportunity could still influence the insurgency’s ideological choices.