After years of waiting out the Barack Obama administration, the fractious Syrian opposition is finding out that time has run out under Donald Trump for any meaningful US action to force Bashar al-Assad from power.
Recent victories by Assad’s armies and their Russian and Iranian allies have crushed hope for a game-changing surge in US military and financial assistance to the beleaguered rebels. Instead, the opposition groups and their US lobbyists are uniting around a dual agenda of boosting anti-Assad sanctions and restoring order in areas recaptured from the Islamic State (IS).
“The Syrian opposition is focused on different priorities with this administration because the priorities on the ground have also changed,” Ibrahim al-Assil, a fellow at the Middle East Institute who has trained activists in Syria, told Al-Monitor. “Removing Assad is not the top priority anymore. It’s about civilian protection and the areas outside regime control.”
Early in his administration, Trump heartened the opposition with his decision to strike a regime air base following a chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in northeastern Syria. Obama had drawn the rebels’ ire when he called off a similar attack in 2013 after striking a deal with Russia to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.
“Years of previous attempts at changing Assad's behavior have all failed, and failed very dramatically,” Trump said in a statement the evening of April 6. “I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria, and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.”
A month later, Assad’s opponents scored another victory when the Treasury Department slapped sanctions on 10 individuals and entities close to the Assad regime for their “relentless attacks on civilians.” The previous day, the Trump administration had accused the Assad regime of cremating the remains of thousands of hanged prisoners as part of “an effort to cover up the extent of mass murder.”
Since then, however, the administration has made it clear that defeating IS is its top priority.
Following negotiations between Russia, Turkey and Iran to create so-called de-escalation zones where US-backed rebels and Assad’s forces should halt hostilities, the Trump administration announced July 7 that it had reached a deal with Moscow on a fourth zone near the border with Jordan and Israel. Talking to reporters after the deal was reached on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Tillerson said that “by and large,” US and Russian objectives “are exactly the same.”
“Where there's differences, we have more work to get together and understand,” he said. “Maybe they've got the right approach and we've got the wrong approach.”
That same month, Trump himself ended a $1 billion, four-year-old covert CIA effort to arm Syrian rebels by dismissing it as a “massive, dangerous and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad.” And in late July, a US-allied rebel faction left a joint coalition base in southern Syria after being ordered to stop fighting the Syrian regime.
“The Shohada al-Quartyan have made it known that they may want to pursue other objectives,” coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon told CNN. "The coalition is making it clear to Shohada Al Quartyan leadership that if they choose to pursue other objectives, the coalition will no longer support their operations."
However, the Department of Defense in May unveiled a fiscal year 2018 budget request that seeks $500 million to train and equip the vetted opposition to fight IS. Congress is also increasingly ambivalent about the opposition, souring on proposals to arm the rebels even as the House voted overwhelmingly in May in favor of new sanctions.
As US policymakers have gone back and forth about what the future of the embattled country will look like, opposition groups have been communicating their own thoughts on how order can be restored in areas liberated from IS.
For the past four years, the Istanbul-based National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (SNC) has retained the services of New York-based Independent Diplomat to advise the opposition on how to engage with US officials in Washington and at UN headquarters. The firm received $2.1 million last year for those efforts, a 50% increase over 2015. Those fees are paid by the British Foreign Service’s UK Conflict Pool, which has paid a key role building up the rebels’ negotiations apparatus.
Separately, the Riyadh-based High Negotiations Committee (HNC) of the Syrian opposition hired Squire Patton Boggs in September 2016 for $50,000 a month to lobby on its behalf. The HNC, which includes the SNC, was formed in December 2015 to represent the Syrian opposition at UN-led peace talks. In addition, MSLGROUP (formerly Qorvis) has been providing “media support” for the HNC for the past few years as part of its $6.2 million-a-year contract with the Saudi government.
Interestingly, Independent Diplomat has been jointly representing the HNC as well as the SNC for the past few months, according to its latest lobbying disclosure. An official with the advisory firm told Al-Monitor that its work with the opposition at peace talks in Geneva has been with more than just the SNC, so the firm decided to update its foreign lobbying submissions accordingly.
The opposition groups are joined in their advocacy by a handful of US-based nonprofits, including the Michigan-based United for a Free Syria, which was founded in 2014 but only registered as a lobbying entity this April ito push sanctions on Syria and Iran. United for a Free Syria held a forum in Washington on Oct. 26 and 27 to advocate for a "free, secular and democratic Syria" in conjuction with the Syrian Emergency Task Force and other like-minded groups.
Riad Seif, the new leader of the SNC, attended the forum and met with US lawmakers as well as State Department and National Security Council officials. He told Al-Monitor in an exclusive interview that he hopes to promote closer cooperation between the opposition and the Syrian diaspora in the United States in order to get the Trump administration more involved in ongoing peace negotiations.
“We need political, military and economic support from the United States,” Seif told Al-Monitor. “If the coalition is strong, it will make an equilibrium on the ground and will force the regime to sit at the table for a political solution.”
Though the Syrian opposition do not want Assad or his Russian and Iranian allies fighting in the country to have a role in administering security in post-conflict areas outside of regime control, they may look to Damascus to provide other amenities, such as maintaining roads and bridges, providing medical care, and keeping schools.
“I don’t think those areas would mind if the Ministry of Education or Health comes back,” said the Middle East Institute’s Assil. “But the disagreement is about the security. What if those security forces want to go back and detain people?”
That lingering distrust has led the US Syrian community to enhance coordination and focus on relief work, lobbying the Trump administration to help fund medical facilities, which often lack security. According to the United Nations, more than 13 million Syrians require humanitarian assistance, including 11.5 million that need urgent medical care.
Earlier this year, 13 Syrian medical organizations, including the US-based nonprofit Syrian American Medical Society, called on the US government to provide funding for underground hospitals in the sprawling war zone, where they are targeted by militants who often use civilians as decoys and human shields.
Meanwhile, opposition supporters appear resigned to removing Assad slowly, by attrition, using sanctions as a key lever to bleed the regime’s financial stamina.
“It will help to isolate the Syrian regime, regardless of what would happen in the future,” said Assil. “So they would say, for example, if Assad stays, let’s make sure he’s not rehabilitated in the international system or in relations with the US. The sanctions will help serve that goal.”
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