Syrian opposition groups meet in Qatar in search of unity

‘Syria is no longer Syria; for the international community this means dealing with Russia and dealing with Iran,’ said exiled negotiator Mariam Jalabi.

 People carry a banner while attending a protest against forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, Russia and the Syrian Democratic forces, in Tariq al-Bab neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria February 29, 2016.  (photo credit: REUTERS/ABDALRHMAN ISMAIL)
People carry a banner while attending a protest against forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, Russia and the Syrian Democratic forces, in Tariq al-Bab neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria February 29, 2016.
(photo credit: REUTERS/ABDALRHMAN ISMAIL)

Several Syrian opposition groups met earlier this week in Doha to try to revive their more than a decade-long campaign to wrest Syria from the hands of Bashar Assad.

March 15 will mark 11 years since their revolution began.

It started as part of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings, where people protested to demand democracy, but it grew into a bloody civil war that drew the intervention of regional and world powers.

In the case of Syria, the opposition groups’ goal was to oust Assad, in power for 11 years already, following the 30-year rule of his late father, Hafez.

As time passed new actors joined in the bloodletting, and each was eventually supported by regional or world powers.

 Rebel fighters queue as they wait to be evacuated from the Old City of Homs May 8, 2014.  (credit: REUTERS/GHASSAN NAJJAR) Rebel fighters queue as they wait to be evacuated from the Old City of Homs May 8, 2014. (credit: REUTERS/GHASSAN NAJJAR)

Today, with great cities devastated, millions of citizens displaced, a severe humanitarian crisis, and at least half a million dead, the Assad regime, once on the ropes, retains power in most of the country. He owes this in many ways to the support of Russia, Iran, and the latter’s proxy Hizbullah.

However, the opposition is still hopeful and continues to battle on.

The opposition is far from homogeneous; it is split into many groups with varying agendas, supported by different actors.

Bassma Kodmani is a member of the UN-supported Syrian Constitutional Committee that seeks to reconcile the government and the opposition and a former member of three major opposition factions. She explained to The Media Line that today, the two internationally recognized groups are in a bad situation.

One of them is the Syrian Negotiation Commission, which was created in 2016. She was a member.

“It includes, in theory, a large number of the opposition factions, but in reality, it has been almost frozen for two years now because it is divided on issues related to foreign influence, the Kurdish issue, and other controversial matters in Syrian society,” Kodmani said.

The other internationally recognized group, she added, is “the Syrian Opposition Coalition [full name the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces] based in Istanbul, which represents only groups that are aligned with Turkey and are okay with the Turkish influence.”

Kodmani explained that the Syrian Opposition Coalition “has lost most of its credibility because of its dependence [on Turkey]. It has a presence in the northwest of Syria but very limited and under Turkey’s supervision,” she added.

“One [internationally recognized] party is too dependent on a foreign power, and the other one, which could be more independent, is actually frozen,” Kodmani said.

The meeting in Doha this week brought together a broad and diverse group. However, factions that are not aligned with Turkey were not present, since the conference required Ankara’s green light.

“So of course, this made it impossible to invite the Kurds from the Syrian Democratic Forces because Turkey considers them terrorists,” Kodmani said. “I don’t think much came out of this meeting.”

It was an effort based on good intentions, but “it is impossible to bring all the factions together when you need other countries’ blessings,” she added.

That is why Kodmani suggested such meetings take place in neutral countries such as Sweden, which would be “more interesting, more independent and more promising.”

Kodmani shared with The Media Line that some democratic factions are trying to create a more independent coalition with a democratic, secular, inclusive and human rights-oriented agenda, and aiming to represent all segments of the Syrian population.

“I don’t think that the current opposition groups can build a united Syria. We need a new coalition and that is what we are working on,” she said. “We have meetings, dialogues, and ongoing exchanges on how to structure such a new coalition.”

Kodmani said that it would take a year or so until they figure out its structure. Then it will be presented to various actors in the international community. After that, it will focus on reaching Syrians on the ground, including several members of the Assad government who might find it appealing.

Sarit Zehavi, a former lieutenant colonel and the founder and CEO of the ALMA Research and Education Center, which focuses on the Israeli security challenges along the country’s northern borders, told The Media Line she agrees it is important for these new coalitions to connect with Syrians on the ground.

“I think it would be very difficult for them to have an influence without having enough connections inside Syria,” she said.

The Syrian government is doing everything it can to make sure that those who oppose the regime and left do not return, which makes connecting with people inside the country even more important, Zehavi said.

Mariam Jalabi, the Syrian National Coalition’s representative to the UN and co-founder of the Syrian Women’s Political Movement, agrees and told The Media Line that the support of the international community is also crucial if these opposition coalitions are to achieve their goals.

“As far as I’m concerned, the Syrian groups outside of the Syrian territory have a very limited influence. So to create any kind of influence you need the international community to work with you,” Jalabi said.

However, she doesn’t believe they are getting the needed support.

“The international community is not interested right now in creating any difference or any change,” Jalabi said. “It is true that they have encouraged these coalitions, but real support means real political will, real financial will, real economic will to actually get anything done on the ground.”

The international community has realized that with the intervention of Iran and Russia, stabilizing Syria has become a much more complicated task.

“Syria is no longer Syria; for the international community this means dealing with Russia and dealing with Iran,” Jalabi said.

Kodmani explains that one of this coalition’s goals is to convince the international community that there is an alternative to Assad so the coalition can get international support. She implies that this international community includes Russia.

Jalabi is less optimistic about getting Moscow on board.

“We cannot go to Russia and convince them to make a deal and work with us because they already have a deal with Syria, they already have influence over the country. And the only way Russia is going to let go of Syria is by making a deal with Western powers that benefits it in some other way,” she said.

“Syria is a political playing card for Russia, which is interested in keeping it as long as it serves its interests. It is no longer the Syrian people against the regime; it is the Syrian people against Iran and Russia,” Jalabi said.

Kodmani says the opposition democratic political factions will continue to hold meetings and dialogues with a view to ousting Assad.

“I think that the first thing that needs to be done in Syria if this coalition comes to power is to agree on a model for the decentralization of Syria, that’s a major goal,” she said. “We want the rights of all of the communities to be safeguarded, and democracy put before anything else.”

Kodmani added that implementing a good security plan should be a major priority. “Syria still deals with terrorism and the security situation is shaky.”

She continued, “We need to establish a good coalition that serves as a transitional government, and once we have stabilization security-wise, then we can have elections.”

Lastly, Kodmani clarified that this coalition will include every opposition faction that wishes to join.