Syrian Opposition Figures Call for Dialogue With Regime

Article Summary
Two separate Syrian opposition leaders have confirmed that they are open to dialogue with the government of President Bashar al-Assad, writes Mohammad Ballout.

Dialogue with the Syrian regime will lead to a reshuffling of cards within the Syrian opposition. The political bombshell, exposed by two diametrically opposed opposition members, sets even more lenient conditions than those demanded just a short time ago to begin talks with the regime. Two concurrent offers were given in 48 hours, to open direct dialogue without international mediation. The first one expected to hold a meeting soon with the regime in Moscow or Geneva, while the other gave the regime a choice between Cairo, Tunis or Istanbul.

The first opposition member was Haytham Manna, of the National Coordination Committee (NCC), who took part in the Hauran Citizenship Forum in Switzerland; and the second was Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib, who lit the fuse that detonated the political bombshell. The former imam of the Umayyad Mosque revealed this astonishing readiness on his personal Facebook page, where he wrote: “It has come to my attention via the media, that the Syrian regime desires to open dialogue with the opposition, and has instructed the prime minister to supervise the process, with the interior minister asking opposition leaders to return to Syria. In light of these developments, I hereby declare my willingness to take part in direct talks with representatives of the Syrian regime in Cairo, Tunis or Istanbul.”

Khatib set two conditions for dialogue: “The release of 160,000 prisoners from Syrian jails, especially female prisoners and those held by the Air Force Intelligence Directorate and in Saidnaya Prison; as well as extending the passport validity of all Syrians abroad by a minimum of two years.” While Khatib commented that “there can be no trust in a regime which kills children, attacks bakeries, bombs universities, destroys Syria’s infrastructure, and massacres innocent people,” he justified his initiative as reflecting “goodwill aimed at looking for a political solution to the crisis, and paving the way towards a transitional phase that would stop the bloodshed, especially considering that the revolution is ongoing and there is no more need for time to be wasted. But the Syrian population is suffering as a result of this unprecedented crisis.”

Previously, President Bashar al-Assad, in a live speech he gave on Jan. 6, had called for a national dialogue conference to be held under the auspices of the current government. A conference that would give rise to a national charter on which a referendum would be held prior to the formation of a new expanded government,  which would oversee parliamentary elections. The Syrian government initiated operational procedures to make this proposal a reality, at a time when the Interior Ministry pledged to give guarantees to dissidents living abroad in order for them to return to Damascus and take part in the dialogue. The Syrian judiciary also announced that it would dismiss any legal proceedings against those dissidents.

In fact, it was not by mere accident that internal and external opposition factions agreed, at the same time, to accept the regime’s call for dialogue at this critical stage. For Manna, who from the beginning wagered on finding a political solution, found in this opportunity a perfect manifestation of his position against arming the opposition, turning the conflict into a sectarian war, and relying on outside help and international intervention. For the first time ever, he was able to transcend the boundaries of the NCC and attract supporters from the Building the Syrian State Movement, the Syrian Democratic Platform, and some members of the National Coalition, who, Manna says, called him to offer support and congratulations.

For his part, the former imam of the Umayyad Mosque saw in this opportunity a chance to avert the worst, compounded by his feeling of despair that all his allies had reneged on their promises to aid the opposition, and left the Syrian people to face their fate alone under the systematic aerial bombardment and destruction of their cities. A level of despair reflected by his conspicuous absence from the “Friends of Syria” conference in Paris last Monday, which only led to more promises, as he had predicted in an earlier statement.

The Syrian National Council (SNC) categorically rejected the initiative, while the National Coalition chose not to officially comment on it. A communiqué by the SNC said that “these statements do not reflect the position of the SNC, and are contrary to the coalition’s bylaws and the Doha Document, under which the coalition was formed, which calls for the categorical rejection of any negotiations with the criminal regime, and the insistence that it, and all of its symbols be removed.”

Throughout the day, Khatib argued with his critics. In a second statement, he responded to the SNC’s communiqué by clarifying that “the proposal I submitted reflected my personal views, for which I bear full responsibility. The coalition is holding tomorrow (Jan. 31) a meeting of its interim political committee that will decide what its official stance will be.” He affirmed that “we are not negotiating for the regime to stay in power, but for its ousting in the least bloody and destructive manner possible.”

In addition, Khatib publicly expressed his dismay concerning his allies,  commenting that “there are countries that promise in vain. There are people who tell the Syrians to advance only to leave them exposed mid-battle. There are those who gave commitments to support the rebels, only to abandon them to die. There are also those who sit comfortably on their couches and tell the Syrians ‘fight, don’t negotiate.’ International silence prevails while the revolution gets stifled, and hundreds of thousands of people get displaced. There are those who are plotting for Syria to be removed from the face of the Earth in a devastating war that would last for years.”

Both sides of the opposition, despite their different positions and views regarding negotiations, seem to have lowered the bar of conditions for negotiations. Manna is more in tune than Khatib with the allied political factions, who added their signatures to his Geneva statement two days ago. In that statement, they asked that the first stage of dialogue be commenced without international mediation, and without specifying the identities of those who would sit at the negotiating table, be their hands stained with blood or not. Previously, all opposition factions had rejected without exception.

It is apparent, that after 18 months of war, it is no longer useful to try and differentiate between blood-soaked and clean hands among representatives of the regime. Furthermore, the armed opposition factions, along with the armed formations of the coalition and the SNC, bear a large amount of responsibility for the killing and destruction that has taken place; not to mention that opposition ranks are filled with former elements of the regime, such as former Prime Minister Riad Hijab and others, who have defected and joined the opposition without anyone asking about their actions while serving the regime.

In addition, the opposition has endorsed and backed Jabhat al-Nusra in its suicide attacks, as well as other jihadist extremist factions, because their needs of the jihadists’ military capabilities supersedes the need to criticize their actions.

The Geneva meeting, which Manna worked hard to organize and make a success, resulted in a statement that coincided with Khatib’s premature call for dialogue. Both of them, at this early stage, withdrew their demand for international mediation and the need for a third party to be present if direct negotiations were held. Manna and the NCC’s aim through the Geneva statement, however, was to return the Syrian regime to the Geneva plan, which required international guarantees be given for all commitments that were undertaken, as well as negotiating to establish the terms, as set by the international Geneva plan, to form a transitional government with full authority.

In this context, Manna told As-Safir that the people who attended the Geneva conference were not content with offering to negotiate, but possessed a practical vision of what the negotiations with the regime would entail. He explained that the talks would either be held in Moscow or Geneva, and that he had received overwhelming Russian support. For her part, the U.S. secretary of state, who attended part of the conference in Geneva, considered the closing statement and the offer to negotiate a positive development.

In contrast, it remains unclear whether Khatib’s stance was based on clear changes on the ground, except for the Syrian Interior Ministry’s invitation to which he alluded in his call for dialogue. It should be noted that the SNC and the coalition had previously rejected Russia’s interpretation of the results of the Geneva meeting, and any transitional phase that would see President Assad remain in power.

It is certain that Khatib would have to specify the party with which he would accept negotiations. In fact, Khatib, in his call for dialogue today, proved that his desire to negotiate with the regime was more than a personal opinion; for he would not have jeopardized his position in the opposition had he not known that a significant bloc within the coalition endorsed his new approach to negotiate with the Syrian regime. He surely represents a real movement inside the coalition, following the failure of the Marrakesh Conference in guaranteeing the necessary budget for the functioning of the interim government, and the Europeans reneging on their promises; especially those concerned with providing the opposition forces and the Unified Military Council with modern weaponry.

It is certain that Khatib will face opposition from the Muslim Brotherhood, with whom he clashed heads at the Istanbul meetings, and who rejected the idea of forming an interim government. It remains unclear whether or not Khatib’s desperate public appeal will change anything in the Brotherhood’s aforementioned rejection. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has made it clear that it opposes the formation of any interim government for the time being, because of its concern that such a government would instill and establish a division of powers that would be hard to change in the future, and its fear that liberals and independents would see their presence strengthened inside the coalition as a result.

One can surely question whether the regional sponsors really endorse the formation of such a government. In all probability, George Sabra’s boisterous demands during the Paris conference for weapons and $500 million in support of the interim government are not realistic, nor are they in tune with European and American plans. Everybody knows that what is being requested goes beyond the establishment of an interim government. What is required is the funding of an “opposition state” that takes on the responsibilities of the government, beyond merely paying the living expenses of a huge administrative staff, and the assimilation of hundreds of thousands of government employee defectors. What is required is that funding be guaranteed to wage an obviously very long winded war, which they would rather pay for in Syrian blood alone.

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