Syria’s Opposition Conferences: Results and Expectations
Now they’re all done—three conferences for three sets of self-proclaimed representatives of the Syrian opposition. One in Damascus, one in Syrian Kurdistan, and one in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. For a thorough background, have a look at Wednesday’s post on Syria in Crisis. For the latest on what did and didn’t happen, read on.
THE USUAL FARE FROM DAMASCUS
The government-approved conference in Damascus was billed as a meeting of what was termed the “patriotic opposition” and it took place under the slogan “Voice of the Interior,” Sawt al-Dakhel. Some moderate old school dissidents were in attendance, but most delegates were Assad-friendly reformists, non-revolutionary civil society figures, government-linked tribal leaders, or others of that general inclination. One of the best-known participants, Majd Niazi, is such a stalwart ally of the government that she was discreetly dropped from a series of Kremlin-sponsored negotiations earlier this year because the other participants found it impossible to take her so-called opposition party seriously.
As I wrote on Wednesday, the meeting in Damascus was essentially a media ploy, set up to delegitimize the meeting in Riyadh and broadcast images of an ostensible internal opposition criticizing the foreign-backed exiles. Some of the participants are undoubtedly sincere in their politics, but the meeting itself had nothing to do with independent anti-government forces organizing themselves.
The conference drew little attention except in Syrian state media and that reporting consisted mostly of quotes from delegates who attacked the Riyadh conference. According to a private newspaper owned by the president’s cousin, most speeches were about condemning foreign intervention, including one given by an Iranian diplomat.
THE KURDISH COUNTER-CONFERENCE
The meeting in Syrian Kurdistan was more deserving of the opposition label, although its participants have little in common with most of the people meeting in Riyadh. The conference had originally been advertised for the city of Rumeilan, but it seems it ended up being moved to nearby Derik, known as Malikiya in Arabic. More than a hundred delegates took part.
This conference too, was organized largely in response to the meeting in Riyadh, after Turkish pressure made sure to exclude the dominant Kurdish force in Syria from those talks. Since 2012, Syrian Kurdistan has been under the control of groups loyal to the Iraq-based leadership of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. They use a variety of acronyms and front groups when operating in Syria, but the most recent one—which includes a few smaller Arab and Syriac groups—is a military umbrella organization called the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.
The PKK leadership has played its cards beautifully since the Syrian war began. Having muscled out all Kurdish rivals, the group now receives military backing from the United States through the SDF, while other groups in the PKK sphere, such as the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, work hand in hand with Russia. They have hostile relations with nearly all of the mainstream Arab opposition, not to mention the jihadists, but this is offset by tense yet working ties to Assad. Materially speaking they have done better than any other group in the war. Though they would have been a very poor fit for the delegation chosen in Riyadh, as they are at daggers drawn with most of the other armed groups invited there, the Kurds would seem perfectly placed to benefit from any future peace talks. But instead, due to Turkey’s relentless hostility to the PKK—regardless of the acronym du jour—they fear being excluded altogether.
Now, to outmaneuver Ankara and ensure Kurdish participation in the peace talks, whether as a part of the mainstream opposition or in a separate third-force role—which would frankly speaking be a better fit—the PKK has started to reconfigure its political approach. Using the new SDF coalition, the organization strives to conceal its own commanding role while adding non-Kurds to the group and presenting it as a national opposition alliance rather than as a narrow regional or ethnic project. In this way, they’re playing to what could be a critical mass of interested actors, collectively able to override Turkish objections: Americans, Europeans, Russians, Iranians, and the Syrian government.
To this end, the Derik conference has elected a political counterpart to the SDF, a 42-member body which will be known as the Democratic Syrian Assembly. While most of the groups involved in the conference were either PKK fronts or closely tied to the PKK and its network in Syria, there were also a few other local groups and figures tolerated by the PKK loyalists, as well as a number of Arab and Syriac dissidents.
Of the non-local, non-PKK delegates, most appear to be linked in one way or another to the industrious exile dissident Haitham Mannaa. A leftist intellectual and human rights activist based between Paris and Geneva, Mannaa recently split from the National Coordination Body, a moderate coalition based in Damascus (its remaining leadership has grown close to the Russians and the group took part in the Riyadh conference). He then enlisted the help of his allies in exile and in Syria to create three new organizations: his own Qamh Movement, the Gathering of the Pact for Dignity and Rights, and the more broadly-based Cairo Group. All of which were present in Derik.
THE RIYADH CONFERENCE
Now, let’s move on to the main course: the Riyadh conference. Wrapped up on time, on December 10, the event was met with widespread and unsurprising acclaim from the organizing governments and other nations sympathetic to the Syrian opposition. “We welcome the positive outcome of the gathering of the Syrian opposition in Riyadh,” wrote the U.S. State Department in a congratulatory message, hailing the “broad and representative group of 116 participants.”
At the meeting, a final statement was adopted that laid out the principles for the upcoming negotiations with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Among them, according to a widely circulated draft, was “faith in the civilian nature of the Syrian state and its sovereignty over all of Syria’s territory, on the basis of administrative decentralization.” The document also expressed a commitment to “a democratic mechanism through a pluralistic system that represents all segments of the Syrian people, men and women, without discrimination or exclusion on a religious, sectarian, or ethnic basis,” organized by way of “free and fair elections.” The delegates promised to “work to preserve the institutions of the Syrian state, although it will be necessary to reorganize the structure and formation of its military and security institutions.” There would be a state monopoly on armed force. They condemned terrorism and stressed their refusal of “the presence of any foreign fighters.”
Regarding the upcoming talks, the delegates expressed their readiness to engage in a UN-supervised political process such as that described in the November 14 Vienna communiqué, which calls for Syrian-Syrian negotiations by January 2016 and a ceasefire by June of the same year. However, they asked the international community to “force the Syrian regime to perform measures ascertaining its good faith before the start of the negotiating process,” such as an end to death sentences and starvation tactics and a release of prisoners. The start of a ceasefire was linked to the creation of a transitional government, as sketched out in the Geneva Communiqué of 2012. Regarding the most crucial question of all, the conference stated that “Bashar al-Assad and his clique” have to leave power at the start of the transition—not at the end of it.
Last but not least, the delegates also agreed to create a High Negotiations Committee, tasked with electing and overseeing a team of 15 negotiators who will face the government delegation and decide the future of the country. And that, of course, was where it got tricky.
AHRAR AL-SHAM PULLS OUT
Syrian opposition meetings are typically marred by any number of angry walkouts, but in this case there were only two.
The first came in the form of Haitham Mannaa’s last-minute announcement of a boycott. It was slightly disingenuous as by that time it was already clear that Mannaa’s allies were headed to the Kurdish conference instead. Most of the people involved shrugged it off.
A more damaging blowup came when Ahrar al-Sham, the most powerful and most hawkish Islamist armed group among the attendees, was asked to sign off on the agreement. Having already criticized the inclusion of Russia-friendly groups like the National Coordination Body, Ahrar al-Sham balked at what it saw as a watered down and secular-leaning statement and a High Negotiations Committee stacked with anti-Islamist, doveish, and borderline regime-friendly factions.
The armed rebels at the meeting—various Free Syrian Army groups, Ahrar al-Sham, the Islam Army, Ajnad al-Sham, and others—had been pushing to demand half of the seats on the High Negotiations Committee. They got a third instead and most were fine with that. But just as the talks were being wrapped up, around four or five a clock in the afternoon, Ahrar al-Sham issued a public statement saying they were withdrawing from the conference. This caused serious concern among both dissidents and organizers, since Ahrar al-Sham’s integration with the rebel mainstream was one of the main goals of the Riyadh conference.
Different sources at the conference have provided me with different accounts and chronologies, but it appears that the Ahrar al-Sham delegate, Labib Nahhas, who is one of the group’s most well-known doves, simply decided to go ahead and attend the signing ceremony anyway—perhaps after securing support from one or more leaders who were not present. The signing took place at around half past six that evening and Nahhas put his name down as a representative of Ahrar al-Sham.
Then, the confusion began. When reporters pointed out out that Nahhas’s signature was on the document, several high-ranking Ahrar al-Sham leaders (who were not present in Riyadh) responded on social media by confirming their decision to withdraw and not sign. At the time of writing, the fog hasn’t quite cleared, but it appears that Nahhas was more or less acting on his own in signing the statement and that Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership in Turkey and Syria has indeed opted to boycott the meeting. Several sources tell me that this is a manifestation of a longstanding struggle between hawks and doves inside Ahrar al-Sham. But there also seems to be an external element to the conflict. Ahrar al-Sham’s leaders and members inside Syria are being pressured by their Nusra Front allies to abandon all peace talks. But, their leaders are simultaneously browbeaten by foreign diplomats who insist that the group must firmly commit to the UN process or risk losing support, and that it may even end up on a terrorist black list.
If Ahrar al-Sham backs away from Nahhas’s signature, or tries to hedge its bets, it would not necessarily be fatal to the outcome of the Riyadh conference. The group might be dragged onboard again later—and, for the moment, the Saudis and other organizers are simply going to proceed as if there were no dispute, in the hope that Ahrar al-Sham’s leaders will come around in the end. Ahrar al-Sham might also decide that ambiguity is in its best interest and simply let all sides believe what they like. But if the group ends up publicly distancing itself from the conference, it would be very bad news for anyone who had hoped to see broad-based unity and a credible diplomatic delegation emerging from the meeting in Riyadh.
THE HIGH NEGOTIATIONS COMMITTEE
Even though the Riyadh conference has ended, there are still last-minute fixes being done to the composition of the High Negotiations Committee. Several versions of its membership are currently circulating. What seems to have been agreed upon is a list of 34 members. It originally stood at 32, after the addition of extra rebels, but is now up two more after negotiations and renegotiations.
Of the 34 members, nine come from the National Coalition, Syria’s main alliance of politicians in exile. They include people like current National Coalition President Khaled Khoja, his predecessor George Sabra, veteran dissidents like Riad Seif and Soheir al-Atassi, Mohammed Farouq Teifour of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Kurdish politician Abdelhakim Bashar, and the former Syrian prime minister Riad Hejab.
Another five are drawn from the National Coalition’s main rival, the much smaller and more moderate National Coordination Body. Among them are Safwan Akkash, a communist politician who serves as the group’s secretary, and the veteran Nasserite dissidents Mohammed Hejazi and Ahmed al-Esrawi.
Nine others are listed as independents, though many of them are in fact linked to political groups. There, we find Louai Hussein, an Alawite leftist intellectual and former prisoner of conscience, who is the head of the Building the Syrian State Movement, a small pacifist group. There’s also Ahmed al-Jarba, a former National Coalition president with strong ties to Saudi Arabia.
Finally, eleven members are drawn from the armed rebel groups, up from six when the conference began. It remains somewhat unclear how their seats are going to be distributed and whether they will be at the free disposal of certain groups or tied to individuals elected at the conference. Several names have been mentioned, however, including Mohammed Alloush of the Islam Army and Labib Nahhas, the Ahrar al-Sham delegate (it remains to be seen whether he will take his seat). There are also representatives of various Free Syrian Army factions, apparently including Bashir Menla of the Jabal Turkman Battalion and Hassan Hajj Ali of the Suqour al-Jabal Brigade.
THE COMPOSITION OF THE COMMISSION
While the list isn’t yet confirmed, a few things stand out. The most obvious problem is the fact that Abdelhakim Bashar was the only Kurd elected to the Higher Negotiations Committee. Bashar is a senior leader of the National Coalition and closely aligned with the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iraq, which backs his Kurdish National Council.
Abdulbaset Sieda, himself a Kurd and active in Kurdish nationalist causes for decades, is not happy. “Many Kurds are bothered by this,” he tells me. “To have only one Kurd among 33 or 34 persons elected, that’s completely unacceptable.” He puts some of the blame on the Kurdish National Council itself, saying that it should have tried to secure places for a delegation of its own in Riyadh, to ensure Kurdish representation through the electoral system. With no pre-arranged constituency for Kurdish participation, the voting procedure took care of the rest.
“Every delegation was allowed to appoint its own representatives after negotiating their number of seats on the Higher Negotiations Committee,” explains Sieda. “The National Coalition ended up with nine seats at its disposal, so we tried to create a pluralistic ticket and make sure that we appointed one Kurd, one Alawite, one Christian, one member of the Muslim Brotherhood, one representative of the clans, and so on. Among the nine, we appointed Abdelhakim Bashar.”
“The National Coordination Body also had a Kurdish member in their delegation to Riyadh, Khalaf Dahoud—he is close to the PYD—but they did not put him in their five-person quota. I don’t know why. Then there were a few Kurds among the independents, but since the independents were from many different groups and could not decide beforehand who should hold their eight or nine seats, they had to hold an internal vote about it. That ended with no Kurd being appointed on their ticket either.”
“Now, the idea is that the High Negotiations Committee will appoint a delegation to meet the government,” says Sieda, clearly troubled by the outcome of the vote, although he says it happened more by accident and oversight than by design. “Hopefully we can correct the error then by making sure there are Kurds among the negotiators.”
At the moment, however, the Higher Negotiations Committee is overwhelmingly Arab, despite a couple of Turkmen dissidents (Khaled Khoja and Bashir Menla). On the other hand, there are at least some representatives of all the main religious minorities, including Alawites (such as Mondher Makhous), Christians (Hind Qabawat), and Druze (Yahia Qodmani). Bedouin tribes are also represented, Salem al-Meslet being a prominent figure in the Jabbour tribe and Ahmed al-Jarba a leader of the eastern Shammar confederation. More generally speaking, the political portion of the list has a strong secular streak, although this will be significantly diluted by the eleven rebel appointees.
As for the catastrophic under-representation of women—only Hind Qabawat and Soheir al-Atassi, as far as I can tell—it is unfortunately standard fare in Syrian politics. And non-Syrian politics too, for that matter.