They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
It’s a lesson
that Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), likely
learned when he sparked a firestorm within the Syrian opposition after declaring
his willingness to enter into negotiations with the Assad regime on January 30.
As part of his stated conditions, Khatib demanded the release of 160,000
political prisoners being held by the Assad regime and the renewal of expired
passports for Syrian dissidents abroad.
Until Khatib’s remarks, the SNC’s
official stance had been to reject all negotiations with the Assad regime unless
the embattled dictator agrees to relinquish power. It thus comes as no surprise
that other SNC officials and their backers in the region were quick to denounce
Khatib’s statements as unrepresentative of the coalition’s policies. However,
their outrage did little to stop Khatib from reiterating his willingness to
negotiate during a security conference in Munich, where he also met with Russian
and Iranian officials.
With the noose literally tightening around his
regime in Damascus, the Assad regime announced for the first time on February 9
that it would be open to negotiations with the opposition, albeit with its own
conditions, including the rebels laying down their arms.
statements represented a sharp divergence from the longstanding policy of the
Syrian opposition, which was founded on the opposition to any form of
negotiations and demands the ousting of the Assad regime. It’s most likely
Khatib made the remarks in an effort to portray a moderate stance toward the
international community at a time when increasing radicalism has deterred
much-needed funding from reaching rebel units on the ground in Syria. Such moves
would also bolster the prestige of moderate elements within the SNC itself amid
the growing influence of hard-line Islamist elements.
That said, Khatib’s
statements may backfire in a big way, having caused outrage both within the SNC
and between the coalition and Syrian rebel units. Members within the SNC who
oppose the move include the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a highly influential
faction whose years of persecution under the Assad regime have contributed to
its hard-line stance. SNC members have since stated that by offering to hold
negotiations, Khatib threatens to decrease morale on the ground by hinting at
Many within the SNC have already begun to assert that Khatib was
being lured to talks by an Assad regime strategy used during the Syrian
occupation of Lebanon. At that time, the Assad regime incentivized certain
elements of the March 14 coalition in an effort to divide Lebanon’s anti-Syrian
opposition, while ultimately failing to implement any real
Khatib’s continued promotion of dialogue will negatively affect
the level of influence that the SNC retains among rebel units on the ground. The
predecessor of the Syrian National Coalition, the Syrian National Council, was
disbanded under international pressure due to its perceived failure to
effectively influence and represent opposition fighting units inside Syria.
Khatib’s potential acceptance of a Russian offer to hold talks in Moscow would
further threaten unity and foster mistrust between the SNC and the
Syrian rebels have since targeted Russian and Iranian interests
in Syria for those governments’ staunch military and political support of the
Hypothetically, any future negotiation process would
unlikely yield results, let along materialize in the near term. Under current
conditions, the Assad regime is unlikely to yield to Khatib’s request to release
160,000 political prisoners; such a move would greatly strengthen the opposition
by releasing potential combatants, many of whom were radicalized by torture and
inhumane conditions during captivity.
Furthermore, the SNC retains
relatively little influence over key rebel units, primarily those with Islamist
leanings. Units with jihadist ties such as Jabhat al- Nusra have emerged the
opposition’s most capable fighting force, often spearheading campaigns to
capture key military sites in outlying areas while staging suicide attacks
against well-defended government installations in major cities. These groups
have long stated their refusal to align with moderate rebel units, while
opposing the leadership of the SNC.
As such, these extremists would
likely work to collapse any potential agreement between the Assad regime and the
SNC by increasing their attacks in an effort to provoke government reprisals and
return the revolution to its endless cycle of violence.
Simply put, both
the Syrian government and the opposition lack the will or ability to put an end
to their protracted 22-month conflict, which has already claimed over 60,000
It’s a reality that Moaz Khatib should come to terms with quickly,
or he may soon find himself excommunicated from the Syrian
The author is the MENA section intelligence manager at Max
Security Solutions, a geo-political risk consulting firm based in Tel Aviv. You
can follow him on Twitter @Dannynis.