When the so-called Geneva II conference for peace in Syria was being planned in 2013—it finally took place in two rounds in January and February 2014—there was a reasonably clear division of labor. Officially, the conference was held under UN auspices, with the then UN and Arab League special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi heading the bill. However, the driving force behind the talks was a joint effort by President Vladimir Putin’s government in Russia and President Barack Obama’s government in the United States to solve the Syrian war that they had both come to view as insupportably costly, destructive, and pointless.
Russia was responsible for delivering the regime, which it did in the form of a high-level delegation headed by Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem. The United States was tasked with bringing representatives of the opposition. Given the weak level of U.S. influence inside Syria and the extraordinarily fragmented nature of Syria’s opposition—then as now—this proved to be beyond the capacity of U.S. diplomacy. The delegation finally produced did have the tacit backing of some rebel factions, but in essence, it represented the United States and its foreign allies more than it represented the Syrian opposition. This, together with regime intransigence and a lack of common ground, was an important reason for the failure of the talks.
Now, Russia has taken on the same task, despite having far weaker ties to the opposition—and the results are similar. Having already coaxed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government into attending peace talks in Moscow on January 26-29, the Kremlin finds itself unable to convince any significant opposition leader to participate.
No armed groups
The bar seems to have been set very low, with Russia not even attempting to bring onboard the armed rebels that actually matter for the outcome of the conflict. Salafi-jihadi irreconcilables like the Islamic State or al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front were of course never going to participate anyway, but even the rebel mainstream and more moderate groups have condemned the Russian plan as a counterrevolutionary project. That includes the recently formed Revolution Command Council (RCC), Syria’s largest rebel coalition. Representing dozens of rebel factions—most of the big ones, except the Kurds and the most radical anti-Western jihadis—the RCC now calls for a boycott of the Moscow talks.
One group that might still show up in Moscow is the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (‘PYD’ in Kurdish). It’s not an armed movement, but as the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, it also informally represents the PKK-linked People’s Protection Units (YPG), a powerful Kurdish militia that controls large areas along the Turkish border. The PYD did not support the Geneva II conference, but its leader Saleh Muslim Mohammed (interviewed on Syria in Crisis here and here) has developed good relations to Russia and if the Moscow talks take place, he may well be in attendance.
Weak Russian links to the opposition
As the mainstream of the Sunni militant movement denounces the talks, more moderate Syrian opposition groups have appeared unwilling to contradict them simply to please Russia, an ally of the Assad regime.
According to the Syrian pro-opposition journalist Bahiya Mardini, the opposition figures invited to Moscow are: Badr Jamous, Sheikh Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, Abdelahad Steifo, Ayman Asfari, Randa Qassis, Abdulbaset Sieda, Fateh Jamous, Nawaf al-Mulhem, Mays Kreidi, Samir Aita, Saleh Muslim Mohammed, Salah Darwish, Majd Niyazi, Hadi al-Bahra, Soheir Sarmini, Hassan Abdelazim, Mazen Maghribiya, Aref Dalila, Heitham Mannaa, Mona Ghanem, Walid al-Bunni, Qadri Jamil, Salim Kheir-Bek, Maya al-Rahbi, and Mohammed Fares, with a couple of tribal representatives and perhaps others yet to be added to the list.
There are some important names on that list, particularly Saleh Muslim Mohammed of the Kurdish PYD (see above) and Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib (see below) as well as a number of prominent exiles and veteran activists inside Syria who have spent years in jail for their criticism of the Syrian government. In addition, the list is broadly representative of Syria’s diversity by including prominent Alawites, Christians, Kurds, and even—miracle of all miracles—a few women.
What the list is not, however, is representative of the Syrian opposition. Most of the invitees are secular leftists or nationalists who could perhaps have represented a part Syria’s opposition before 2011, but who lack any influence over the armed rebellion threatening the Assad regime today.
Refusing the Russian invitation
To make matters worse, most of these individuals have already refused the invitation. The most influential person on the list is Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib, a Sunni theologian from Damascus. Known for his pragmatism and for his early support for a negotiated solution to the war, he had staked his credibility on defending the Russian initiative in the face of opposition critics who could see nothing good come out of Moscow. But now, the sheikh has announced that he and his political group will pull out of the talks, accusing the regime of ignoring his calls for a good-faith release of women and children from prison before the talks.
Others are also turning down the Russian requests. “In its current form, Russia’s so-called initiative will surely not be accepted by the Syrian people,” said Khaled Khoja, the newly elected leader of the National Coalition for Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, an Istanbul-based leadership for Syria’s exiled opposition that is backed by the United States, Turkey, several European nations, and the major Arab Gulf countries. And the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which is influential both among some armed factions and within the National Coalition—its leader, Khoja, is considered close to the group—already said on December 30 that it “categorically rejects” the Russian initiative.
Even the very moderate National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, or NCB—a small, pacifist, and anti-interventionist group dominated by secular leftists based inside Syria, which has excellent relations with Russia—has expressed reservations against the initiative, as currently formulated. NCB leaders complain that Russia is trying to cherry-pick opposition figures and political personalities to their liking, inviting them in their personal capacity instead of as representatives of their organizations. They also demand the release of the NCB political prisoners, including top leaders like Raja al-Nasser and Abdelaziz al-Khayyer.
Also on the NCB’s list of prisoners who must be freed is Louay Hussein, a leftist intellectual who founded the even more moderate Building the Syrian State movement (BSS), which calls for nonviolent reform and opposes any Western-backed intervention in Syria. Hussein was imprisoned in November without explanation from the government. Since the regime now refuses to let him out to join the talks, the Russians have instead invited his deputy Mona Ghanem. But the BSS, angered by Assad’s abuses and by Russia’s refusal—or inability?—to help spring their leader from prison, has now turned down the invitation.
As for the NCB, it has not yet taken a clear stand on the Moscow meeting, being preoccupied with internal splits and torn between those who seek favor with Russia and those who are worried that participating would ruin the group’s already lackluster opposition credentials. But given the defections of virtually all other factions and the regime’s brusque refusal to release prisoners or give other signs of good faith, the NCB’s participation in Moscow appears very uncertain.
Left with the “loyal opposition”
So who is left? Only a handful of representatives of the most moderate groups, particularly individuals closely connected to Russia—and in some cases to the Syrian regime itself. Some of these figures can hardly be described as dissidents at all and even the very moderate NCB has objected to their involvement, saying that if Russia really wants them to attend, they should be seated with Assad’s delegation instead of with the opposition.
Among these invitees, we find people like Qadri Jamil, a communist, former deputy prime minister of Syria, who has strong links to Russia and is currently said to reside in Moscow, and Mazen Maghribiya. Both Jamil and Maghribiya are leaders of the Popular Front for Liberation and Change (PFLC). This small Damascus-based coalition of legal political parties serves as the regime’s loyal opposition, by calling for reforms and anti-corruption measures, while also lauding the army’s battle against “terrorism” and of course backing Assad’s continued rule. Predictably, the PFLC has welcomed the Russian initiative.
Even though the PFLC is in practice a cat’s paw for the Syrian government, it does contain a few leaders with genuine historical opposition credentials—like Fateh Jamous, a communist leader who has spent nearly two decades in prison for opposing the Assad family. And groups like the PFLC may well have some role to play in a hypothetical political transition, precisely because they are not viewed as a real threat by the regime. Even so, they are clearly not able to speak on behalf of the Syrian rebels or of any of the regional and international powers backing the insurgency—that is, they do not represent Assad’s actual opponents.
For Russia to ask the government to negotiate with such an “opposition” serves no practical purpose. Unless Moscow now manages to turn things around and convince at least a few opposition factions to participate, perhaps by pressuring Assad to make a few visible concessions, there will be no point in holding these talks—no point except political theatre. But perhaps that was the point all along?
Previously On the Russian Initiative:
Joseph Bahout, Russia and Iran Step into Syria’s Diplomatic Vacuum, December 30, 2014.
Aron Lund, Russia Cannot Fix Syria Alone, January 13, 2015.
Aron Lund, Why the Assad Regime Is Going to Moscow, January 14, 2015.