In the course of only a few hours, and in an orchestrated manner, disagreements erupted within the opposition National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces concerning the request made by its leader, Moaz al-Khatib, that negotiations be held with the regime. These disagreements signaled the beginning of a countdown to oust Khatib from the coalition’s leadership post. Meanwhile, the Americans — the main sponsors of the most influential Syrian opposition bloc — clarified their position in a news conference held by Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington. This purpose of this conference was to clearly and unambiguously favor a negotiated settlement which converged with the Russian viewpoint and confirmed that the Russian-American rapprochement had been transformed into an agreement worth putting to the test.
In the joint news conference with his Norwegian counterpart yesterday, the American secretary of state listed a number of American and European objections concerning the role that President Bashar al-Assad might play in the transitional process. He called on the Syrian president by name to sit down with representatives of the opposition at the negotiation table, negating the previous demand that he be removed from office.
Kerry said, “We want to see Assad and the Syrian opposition sitting at the same table to establish a transitional government as laid out in the Geneva Accords.”
This American position counteracts the Syrian opposition and the Turkish-Qatari-Saudi axis’ sole bet on a military solution, by making Assad part of the solution and not the problem. The American position, made public during Kerry’s news conference, complemented that of the Russians, who consider the Syrian president to be a key part of any political process. It also, for the first time, reflected a common American-Russian interpretation of the Geneva Accords, concerning which many opposing interpretations abound.
The French and British, who were present at the birth of the Geneva Accord on June 30, espoused an interpretation that considered Assad’s abdication to be a prerequisite to any political solution or negotiations that might supplant the military solution sought by Paris and London. Through their security agencies on the ground, the latter nations have coordinated major military operations against the Syrian army.
Kerry’s statement contradicted that of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who had previously said that the Russians, Americans and French were discussing names that were considered acceptable to represent the regime in negotiations. The mere granting of a seat to Assad in the negotiations renders moot the precondition that representatives be limited to those who did not have blood on their hands. It also belied the French minister’s words that France was a partner in the choosing of names, especially considering that no European nations were invited to attend any of the meetings held between the Russians and Americans to discuss the Syrian crisis.
The American stance gave precedence to practical and effective negotiations. While such negotiations might not be to the opposition’s liking, they would bring the decision makers to the negotiating table. They would also bring together figures capable of imposing their will on the security and military agencies, as opposed to mere nominal representatives who lacked the ability to take decisions and enter into deals and compromises that must be urgently reached to stop the wanton destruction spreading throughout Syria.
Kerry further said, “That’s what we’re pushing for. And to do that, you have to have Assad change his calculations so he doesn’t believe he can shoot it out endlessly, but you also need a cooperative Syrian opposition to come to the table, too.” Kerry also reaffirmed that he was working to unite the Syrian opposition.
It will be difficult for the American secretary of state to find supporters among the Syrian opposition for the United States’ decision to espouse finding a political solution in partnership with Russia. It will at least be difficult to convince the public to give the Russian track toward finding a political solution a chance, as well convincing them of the Russians’ ability to extract compromises from the Syrian regime, which they support politically and militarily.
As the secretary of state pushed for a political solution, the secretary-general of the opposition coalition, Mustafa al-Sabbagh, opened fire on the coalition’s president, Khatib, and the latter’s refusal to form an interim government in the areas controlled by the opposition. Khatib feared that doing so would lead to the partition of Syria and the establishment of an executive administerial body that lacked any sovereign political authority.
The dispute between doves and hawks inside the coalition thus became public; and a war of electronic messages erupted between Khatib and Sabbagh. The latter replied to Khatib’s message refusing to hold a meeting in Istanbul days before the [interim] government was supposed to be formed, and flung all manner of accusations aimed at Khatib, some of which bordered on calling him a traitor.
Cohabitation between the two camps has therefore become impossible, not only because of the dispute between those calling for a negotiated solution — such as Khatib and his supporters — and those who prefer a military solution, such as Sabbagh’s camp. This coordination is also impossible because of Qatari pressure aimed at quickly forming an interim government by the coalition which Qatar sponsored and funded in partnership with the Americans since its formation. Qatar even appointed the majority of its members, as many from inside it say, before the holding of the Arab summit in two weeks, in order to give that [interim] government Syria’s seat and permanently expel the Syrian regime from the Arab League, stripping it of its legitimacy.
In a letter disseminated by Syrian opposition websites, the coalition’s No. 2 man, Sabbagh, said that “the interim government is the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and is the only guarantor against Syria’s partitioning.” He also attacked the implication present in Khatib’s message by saying, “The interim government’s authority equaling that of the regime’s is a tacit recognition of the regime’s legitimacy and contradicts the revolution’s goal to overthrow it.”
Sabbagh was adamant that Khatib’s desire to negotiate with the regime “contributed to the promotion of the regime’s contention that Syria’s stability and putting an end to the bloodshed were national goals that supersede any other priorities.” Sabbagh noted, however, that Khatib’s message “failed to emphasize that the road towards ending the carnage and achieving stability in Syria must entail toppling Assad’s regime and its security apparatus.”
A prominent member of the coalition told As-Safir that Khatib has been mulling tendering his resignation for weeks, but was pressured not to do so by opposition factions from outside and inside the coalition. These forces wanted him to wait until an opposition political movement was established that was capable of unifying the different groups that favored negotiating with the regime.
The same opposition figure said that Khatib, without the coalition, was incapable of influencing the course of negotiations and imposing a negotiated settlement on the opposition hawks who are controlled by the Qatari-Turkish-Saudi axis.
Furthermore, reforming the opposition so that it accepts negotiations would be difficult because none of its components — with the exception of the Democratic Civil Alliance, established in Paris following a meeting between the Building the Syrian State Movement and the National Coordinating Committee — possessed a comprehensive vision of what the negotiating process would entail. At the same time, the opposition will not consent to the participation of representatives of the regime in a transitional government that would end the fighting in Syria and open the door towards peacefully changing the regime.
Prominent members of the Civil Alliance said that some armed brigades of the Free Syrian Army favored negotiations, but did not intend to publicly state so until the fate of the coalition was established and a framework set up to encompass supporters of the negotiations option.
An important figure within the coalition stated that Khatib’s fate would be decided on the Mar. 18, if the majority succeeded in meeting; and that Khatib would be forced to resign in order to prevent his sacking during the Istanbul meeting. Postponing or cancelling the meeting was also a possibility, but cancelling it would strike a severe blow to the Qatari ambition of transforming the Doha Summit into a celebratory meeting of Qatar’s political victory over Damascus.
Sabbagh controls a bigger support base than Khatib. A prominent member of the coalition said that Sabbagh, who was appointed by the Qataris, enjoyed the support of a bloc of 15 members of the coalition. Furthermore, a liberal bloc of 12 members also supported him, such as Suheir al-Atassi, Kamal al-Labwani, Jaber Zuain and maybe Walid al-Bunni — who previously supported Khatib — in addition to independent Islamists such as Haitham al-Maleh and Nizar al-Haraki, who comprise a bloc backed and supported by Saudi Arabia. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other and for various reasons, tends to support Khatib’s stance rejecting the formation of an interim government, but it remains uncertain whether they would back him in the upcoming coalition meeting.