Damascus Open to Dialogue With ‘Moderate Militants’

The Syrian government has informed Moscow that it is open to dialogue with moderate armed groups and to assimilate some armed factions into the army following a cease-fire, yet the majority of the Syrian opposition still refuses direct negotiations, writes Mohammad Ballout.

al-monitor Syria's President Bashar al-Assad meets a Turkish parliamentary delegation headed by Hasan Akgol (R) in Damascus in this March 7, 2013 photo released by Syria's national news agency SANA.  Photo by REUTERS/SANA.

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syrian, syria, russian, political solution

Mar 7, 2013

As a possible solution to the crisis, the Syrian regime might agree to the assimilation of some armed factions into the army, following a cease-fire that would precede work on a political resolution. The Syrian regime never abandons a sometimes surprising optimism in its ability to regain the political initiative, during the worst of circumstances.

Damascus’ optimism is contagious to the point where its allies, the Russians, espouse the same political calculations and conditions as those put forth by the regime in order to proceed with negotiations. While Moscow, of course, doesn’t espouse all the same calculations and conditions, it has become Damascus’ twin in ignoring some military facts on the ground. Likewise, both Moscow and the regime disregard the reality that the armed opposition — large portions of which are Islamists and jihadists — is not, and never actually was inclined to initiate any form of dialogue with the regime. This is despite the fact that the latter is nowhere near being militarily defeated. The Russians are choosing to forget their commitment to the Geneva accords as the sole framework for any political solution.

This development was inevitable in light of the accords’ focus on negotiating directly with the armed factions, and giving those factions precedence over “some opposition figures who refused to carry arms and agreed to negotiate without preconditions, but who possess little influence over the militants,” as Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem told his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

The Russians informed Syrian opposition leaders that Moallem had tendered a proposal to Lavrov ten days ago, complete with an assessment of the balance of power on the ground, which he characterized as favoring a regime that felt strong and comfortable with the developments on the battlefield.

In its first phase, Moallem’s proposal limited dialogue to representatives of the regime and those of moderate armed factions that have agreed to negotiate. The Russians told the Syria opposition that the regime considered the integration of these factions into the army as an acceptable solution to their subsequent political and military assimilation. The Russians also communicated that the Syrian regime seemed to be open to any prospective negotiations with the armed factions, despite a statement made by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a subsequent interview that there would be no dialogue with armed factions until they put down their arms.

The Russians further informed the opposition that Moallem’s proposal was devoid of any preconditions, as the working agenda would be determined during the meetings themselves. The only condition set forth by Moallem was that each party delegates whomever it saw fit to represent it — “we define our delegation, and they define theirs.” This would thus guarantee that the belligerents overcome the previously espoused position of excluding “those whose hands were soiled with blood,” at least during the negotiation phase, and maybe even during a future transitional period.

Moallem reiterated the regime’s acceptance of early parliamentary elections, in accordance with the constitutional announcement and the 18-point plan that Assad proposed during his speech at the Opera House. The Syrian foreign minister also told the Russians what they already knew; that discussing Assad’s fate was not acceptable, nor was any talk about him stepping down before the end of his term. He also said that he would not relinquish his right to run in the presidential elections scheduled for Spring 2014.

Moallem also conveyed the fact that Damascus no longer considered international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to be a suitable mediator in the ongoing political process, putting his neutrality in question. Furthermore, Damascus saw no need for him to play a part in defining the workings of a transitional phase, which was outlined in the Geneva accords. The Syrians had previously agreed to an interpretation, backed by the Russians, of the accords that did not include the departure of the Syrian president prior to the transitional period. To that end, Moallem told his Russian counterpart that the Syrian regime was eager to begin negotiations, which the Russians suggested could be held in Geneva or Vienna.

A Syrian opposition figure clarified to As-Safir that the Russians had abandoned their request to include Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa in any negotiations or transitional process after sensing extreme Syrian reticence concerning this issue.

On another front, American-Russian agreement concerning the political process in Syria took an additional step forward with the scheduled meeting in London today between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and US Assistant Secretary of State William Burns. This meeting would be aimed at defining the roadmap towards possible avenues for a political settlement in Syria, and reviewing the results of talks with the Syrian opposition and regime pertaining to their negotiating terms. Bogdanov also met with Brahimi in London prior to a tripartite meeting that would include Burns, and serve to conclude discussions held between Lavrov and his American counterpart John Kerry in Berlin. This comes in the context of diplomatic meetings about Syria held in London and Geneva, which did not lead to any significant progress at the time.

US-Russian consultations point to a further rapprochement of opinions that coincided with Kerry’s appointment to the State Department and President Barack Obama’s decision against the military intervention option hyped by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Obama thus undertook to give the Russians, who possess the unique ability to talk to and influence the Syrian president, the lead in finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict. This is particularly important given that both the Russians and Americans fear that the jihadists’ influence might spill beyond Damascus. They also both are keen on preserving some of the Syrian state’s prestige, army and influence, in order to prevent strategically located Syria from devolving into utter chaos that could threaten the region’s security.

The Americans also wanted to fulfill a Russian request that the Syrian National Coalition and the National Council nominate their representatives for negotiations with the Syrian regime. Lavrov had informed his American counterpart in Berlin last week that Moallem had told him that the regime’s delegation was ready and that he wanted to head to the negotiating table as soon as possible.

An American diplomatic source stated that the coalition was frustrated by the divisions that rocked its ranks, further adding, “Despite that, we informed them (the opposition) that they would be greatly disappointed if they thought that we would supply them with weapons. We will only provide them with logistical and humanitarian aid.” He clarified that “we told the coalition that our priority was to focus on speedily finding a political solution, and that we shared the same concern as that of the Russians and the opposition; that extremists don’t fill the power vacuum left in Damascus following Assad’s departure, and that the state’s institutions be preserved.”

The fate of the Syrian National Coalition comes into focus as the drive toward a political solution gains momentum; for the coalition’s president, Moaz al-Khatib, had refused to visit Moscow, after having set a preliminary date to do so on the fifth of this month.

Opposition sources say that Khatib is facing American pressure to meet with the Russians again in Munich. But as the Russo-American initiative takes shape, and the Russian and American presidents’ opinions converge, the coalition finds itself asking questions that transcend Khatib’s visit to Moscow. The fact that the National Council’s bloc within the coalition boycotted the latter’s delegation to the Friends of Syria conference in Rome, which was only comprised of Riad Seif and Khatib, clearly shows that the largest opposition group was not yet ready to espouse a political or negotiated settlement. And, except for the desire expressed by Khatib to negotiate, the coalition did not possess a ready plan or set perception as to what the political process or solution might be for Syria.

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