Syrian opposition struggles to stop US bargain on Assad

The remnants of the Syrian opposition are making a last-ditch push to convince the US administration and Congress not to abandon them.


Author: Jack Detsch

The Syrian opposition is struggling to gain a foothold with a Donald Trump administration that seems intent on calling it quits in the war-ravaged country.

The US president’s plan for Syria is largely limited to defeating the Islamic State (IS) and curtailing Iranian influence. Despite naming a high-level diplomatic team last month and personally warning Iran and Russia against making a "grave humanitarian mistake" by supporting Bashar al-Assad's imminent assault on the last rebel stronghold of Idlib, Trump appears ready to cut a deal with Moscow that would tacitly accept Assad’s victory in the seven-year civil war while pulling out most of the 2,200 US troops in the country.

The remnants of the Syrian opposition are making a last-ditch push to convince the administration and Congress not to abandon them.

“Leaving Syria rewards Iranian behavior in Syria, empowers the most dangerous actors within Iranian domestic politics, and raises no dilemma for a Russian-Iranian partnership that has several unnatural and exploitable aspects,” activists Jomana Qaddour and Ibrahim al-Assil wrote in The American Interest ahead of the July 16 Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki. “As long as Iran and its radical Shia partners and militias are on a roll, the underlying conditions that give rise to radical Salafi movements like [IS] will remain.”

Lobbyists for the High Negotiations Committee of the Syrian Opposition (HNC), an umbrella group based in Riyadh, were paid more than $1.7 million last year (down from about $2.2 million in 2016) to convince Washington not to allow Assad’s forces to snuff out the moderate opposition. As in years past, the bulk of the money was paid to New York-based Independent Diplomat, which received almost $1.6 million from the British government’s UK Conflict Pool last year, according to a review of lobbying disclosures by Al-Monitor.

The HNC itself paid Ohio-based Squire Patton Boggs $94,000 last year, while Qatar-based committee member Riad Fareed Alhijab Alhasan shelled out $75,000 before his contract with consulting firm LB International Solutions ended on Oct. 31, 2017. Media representation for the HNC by MSLGroup (formerly Qorvis) as part of the firm’s lobbying contract with Saudi Arabia also ended last year, public filings indicate.

As Turkey deepened its military involvement in Syria’s northeast, the Istanbul-based National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (SNC), a member of the HNC, has temporarily closed the Washington office it opened in 2013, SNC member Hadi Albahra told Al-Monitor. Albahra said the organization is active in New York and is in the process of relocating to a new Washington office that will be headed by Oubab Khalil, the chief of staff to former representative to the US Najib Ghadbian.

“We are discussing various issues, many of them related to stabilization issues especially in north, northeast and eastern Syria,” Albahra told Al-Monitor. “But foremost about the political process and ways to move it forward.”

Even as the opposition cuts back on lobbying, the Kurds who have carved out an autonomous zone in northern Syria registered as a foreign agent in January. The stated agenda of the US Mission of the Syrian Democratic Council is to “better equip the army of Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS); improve the region's counter-terrorism apparatus to meet the needs of the post-[IS] era; end the Turkish occupation of Syria; allow the DFNS to operate an international airport; and increase humanitarian aid to the region.”

In a testament to the complex situation on the ground, the Syrian groups risk lobbying at cross purposes. While the Kurds fight for more autonomy, a source with knowledge of the situation told Al-Monitor that the Ankara-backed SNC is lobbying the United States to provide assistance to Turkish-occupied northwest Syria. Ankara-friendly rebels scored a big win in June when the State Department announced that US-backed Kurdish troops would leave the contested town of Manbij.

A handful of American nonprofit groups are also pressing their agendas on Capitol Hill and in the administration.

Michigan-based Americans for a Free Syria recorded $11,000 in lobbying expenses last year pushing for sanctions against the Assad regime and its allies. And Citizens for a Safe and Secure America, an Indiana nonprofit that seeks to "promote and encourage democratic change in Syria," hired Ballard Partners in April and paid the Trump-connected firm $60,000 in the second quarter of 2018 to lobby for a democratic transition in Syria.

The lobbying coincides with evaporating support from both the US Defense and State departments.

The Pentagon’s request to train and equip Syrian rebels battling IS has shrunk to $300 million for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, down from $500 million in Fiscal Year 2018. Meanwhile, the State Department announced Aug. 17 that it was reprogramming $230 million in stabilization and recovery in opposition-held areas liberated from IS after Saudi Arabia and other US allies agreed to pick up the tab. The department also reduced its Syrian aid request to $130 million in its budget request for Fiscal Year 2019, down $20 million over FY 2018.

On the ground, the United States has been reticent to assist anti-Assad rebels in prosecuting the wider war since its April 2017 missile strikes in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack. The White House refused a meeting with a rebel delegation that showed up in Washington in January, Al-Monitor reported at the time. And in June, the State Department told rebels in southwest Syria not to expect the United States to push back as Assad’s forces violated the cease-fire agreed to last year between the United States, Russia and Jordan, prompting the rebels to reach out to the White House with military options.

The opposition has had more luck with Congress. After Trump initially froze $200 million in aid pending a review of US Syria policy, Senate appropriators introduced legislation calling for a $150 million stabilization package while their House counterparts raised concerns about the aid freeze. The House has also voted to cut off US aid to areas controlled by Assad and sanction the regime over its human rights abuses. Both bills are pending in the Senate.

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Reprinted with permission