Can Syria’s Rebels Be Brought into the Political Process?
Last month’s attacks on Paris, which ISIS claimed responsibility for, and the unabated refugee exodus from Syria, have lent new urgency to efforts to end the Syrian war. As diplomacy moves forward, international powers are wrestling with the question of how to bring the rebels fighting on the ground into the political process, and ultimately, get them to abide by a ceasefire.
An important first step in that effort is taking place this week in Saudi Arabia, where members of the Syrian opposition, including both political and armed groups, are meeting in an attempt to form a more united front.
It’s a process that was set in motion in mid-November, when diplomats from more than a dozen nations, including the United States, Russia, and regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, came to an agreement calling for talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups by Jan. 1, a political transition, a ceasefire and elections within 18 months.
In the days after the Nov. 14 agreement, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gave an optimistic timeline for the ceasefire, saying, “We’re weeks away, conceivably, from the possibility of a big transition for Syria.”
But how realistic and enforceable would a ceasefire be on a Syrian battlefield with dozens of armed groups, some backed by regional or international powers with competing interests, and others who are extremist?
WHO TO INCLUDE?
One of the questions the Riyadh conference is trying to answer is which rebel groups should participate in a political process that until now, they have largely been excluded from. The main political opposition in Syria, the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), is Western-backed, but most of the armed groups that have proliferated during the war are thought to have tenuous links at best to the Turkey-based group.
“The Istanbul-based opposition, in my opinion, has no leverage over the conduct of the war,” said Randa Slim, a director at the Middle East Institute. “It’s a factor, because if you don’t have leverage, then you don’t have the ability to negotiate, call for or impose ceasefires.”
However, Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Center who has spent nearly two years convening large meetings of the armed opposition, said that the relationship between the political and armed groups in Syria has shifted over the last several months.
“One year ago, the armed groups would have said the SOC should have no role whatsoever in the political process,” Lister said. “Now, it’s totally different. Now, they say we need to do it together.”
This is the first time that such a broad spectrum of armed groups have been directly involved in the political process. And while the relationship is still tense, Lister said the shift came because the political opposition recognized that it lacked the kind of credibility the armed groups had on the ground, and the armed groups recognized that the political opposition had the necessary international legitimacy.
“A ceasefire is never going to happen unless the entire armed opposition has been involved in creating the conditions for it,” Lister said.
However, their inclusion alone does not guarantee success. Out of the roughly 100 Syrian participants in Riyadh, just 15 are representatives of the armed opposition. “It’s actually a surprisingly low proportion of the armed opposition,” Lister observed. “The groups who are going to Riyadh don’t have the necessary clout together nationwide to actually legitimize or make credible a ceasefire.”
Deciding which members of the armed opposition to include, though, has been a fraught process. The four-and-a-half years of the Syrian war have seen dozens of armed groups spring up across the country, from the more moderate Free Syrian Army, which is backed by the U.S., and conservative, Islamist ones like Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, which get financial support from regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, to terrorist groups like ISIS.
Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam — estimated to have a combined 27,000 fighters — were among the original list of armed groups invited to the conference, along with the Free Syrian Army and the Saudi-backed Southern Front, which have 20,000 and 25,000 fighters respectively. But in a sign of the delicate nature of the talks, Ahrar al-Sham announced on Thursday it was withdrawing from the conference, citing the role of “pro-regime” elements in Riyadh.
Ahrar al-Sham in particular poses a challenge to the long-term political process because of its suspected ties to Al Qaeda, and Russia’s desire to have it labeled a terrorist group. However, Ahrar al-Sham is influential in the north of the country, is backed by Turkey and Qatar, and has proved to be one of the most effective groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
During a press conference on Dec. 1, President Barack Obama acknowledged the inclusion of such opposition groups in the process, saying they were groups that “frankly, we don’t have a lot in common with but [which] do represent significant factions inside of Syria.”
Some experts, like Hassan Hassan, a Middle East analyst at the U.K.-based policy institute Chatham House, are less optimistic about Ahrar al-Sham’s involvement in the political process.
“Ahrar al-Sham says it supports a political solution in Syria and is committed to Syria and its minorities, but they put that on paper to appease and reassure the international community and their backers,” he told Syria Deeply, a news website dedicated to covering the conflict. If an agreement left the Assad government in power, Hassan said, “That might force Ahrar al-Sham to push back against its backers.”
ISIS and Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, are excluded from the ceasefire agreement and the political process. Kurdish Syrian rebel groups were also not invited to Riyadh, and are holding their own parallel meeting in northeastern Syria.
THE ASSAD QUESTION
Another key sticking point is what to do with Assad. The issue of whether the Syrian president stays or goes has been a point of contention between the U.S. and Russia, but it’s also a crucial question for whether armed groups can agree to a ceasefire and political transition.
Several armed opposition groups in Syria have international backers, including the U.S., Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. However, the amount of leverage they hold over rebel fighters depends partly on the Assad question.
“At least in theory, that leverage does exist for [Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar],” Lister said. But if by chance the three countries were persuaded to accept a political process that didn’t get rid of Assad, “you could potentially start to see at least some significant portion of the armed opposition rejecting their regional backers and saying, ‘To hell with you, to hell with the support you provide us, we’re still dedicated to fighting Assad and forcing him out of power.'”
Slim added that the issue of leverage has been exaggerated or oversold, time and again. She gave the example of Russia’s support for Assad. Despite the military and financial support they have provided him, Assad has not given in to Russia’s various demands, such as releasing political prisoners.
“Think about what regional backers can do over rebel groups that aren’t as organized as a state. There will always be rogue elements” within those groups, she said.
THE SPOILER: AL NUSRA
Of course, even if negotiators can settle on which rebel groups to include and then get them to agree to a political consensus, and even if they can navigate the Assad question, the entire process could still be derailed by one group in particular: the Nusra front.
While the decision to exclude ISIS from the ceasefire and political process was easy to agree on, analysts say the exclusion of the Nusra Front adds a layer of complication because of the group’s battlefield cooperation with other Syrian rebels and how entrenched it has become in the conflict.
While the U.S., European countries and even some regional powers will have a hard time accepting the Nusra Front as part of the patchwork of rebels, Slim said it has embedded itself on many front lines in several military theaters throughout Syria, from Idlib to Aleppo and elsewhere.
Indeed, before its withdrawal, Ahrar al-Sham, which is allied with the Nusra Front, criticized the “lack of representation of jihadist factions” in Riyadh in numbers reflecting their strength on the ground.
“A ceasefire drawn up and agreed to without the involvement of the Nusra Front will almost certainly be spoiled very quickly,” Lister said, “unless there is some other agreement made behind the scenes.”
The thinking goes: other armed groups or regional powers like Turkey or Qatar could play a role in persuading the Nusra Front to break its ties to Al Qaeda. But, analysts agree, that remains a very big if.