x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Syrian rebels’ rejection of Geneva will only help Assad

Still squabbling and still self-interested, the political "leadership" of the Syrian resistance is making it easy for Bashar Al Assad to win the diplomatic war.

The Syrian National Council has announced that it will not attend the Geneva II conference, which may take place in November, and will withdraw from the National Coalition if the coalition participates in the conference. As the largest group within the coalition, the council may have effectively undermined Geneva even before it occurs.

Not that Geneva is a particularly promising forum. When the idea of holding a conference on Syria was first broached between the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, earlier this year, it seemed more an act of desperation than the consequence of a well-thought-out peace strategy – a way for two rivals, the United States and Russia, to find common ground over a conflict that had hopelessly divided them.

The Syrian opposition reacted with ill-concealed hostility, sensing that a conference would evade the issue of Bashar Al Assad’s departure from power. Nor did there seem to have been any prior consultation between the Americans and the National Coalition. Soon thereafter, the Syrian opposition lost ground in Qusair and around Damascus, and became even more reluctant to attend a conference that might secure Mr Al Assad’s gains.

In announcing the council’s position this week, its president, George Sabra, told AFP: “The international community has focused on the murder weapon, which is the chemical weapons, and left the murderer unpunished and forgotten the victims.”

He went on to say that the “regional and international context does not give the impression that Geneva II will offer anything to the Syrians”, adding, “we will not participate in a conference that is intended to hide the failure of international politics”.

While Mr Sabra’s disgust with the international community was understandable, his reaction appeared to be motivated by something else: the fact that the National Coalition has limited authority on the ground in Syria, and could be permanently damaged if it embarks on negotiations that are perceived by armed opposition groups inside Syria as compromising the aims of the revolution.

At the same time, Mr Sabra knows there is a conflict within the wider Syrian conflict, with jihadist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) now focusing on bringing to heel more moderate rebel groups.

In recent weeks, ISIS has expanded its rule to areas north of Aleppo, effectively controlling the land passage to Turkey and the revenues that come from the transit trade, but also the supply of weapons and other necessities to rebel groups further south.

In this context, the National Coalition risks further irrelevance if it participates in a conference that ignores these developments and that seeks to impose on the opposition acceptance of Mr Al Assad’s continuation in power.

Given that the United States has been so unreliable over Syria and may accept imperfect solutions before turning attentions elsewhere, there are no guarantees that by associating itself with the American-Russian effort the coalition will benefit.

And yet the National Coalition’s decision simply to refuse to go to Geneva poses considerable risks. Refusal will allow Mr Al Assad to reaffirm that the opposition has no desire for peace, an attitude that may find a sympathetic echo in Washington and Moscow, where a negotiated settlement remains a priority.

More problematically, by rejecting the principle of negotiations, the National Coalition will deny itself a natural venue in which it can participate. Neither the council nor the coalition is a military force. Their comparative advantage comes from their role as political representatives, requiring negotiations without which it is difficult to see what role the coalition can play, beyond issuing statements.

The response of the Syrian National Council will only further discredit it and the National Coalition internationally. This may not mean much today; the opposition has been disappointing and its international and domestic performance has been inadequate. Relations between the two are at low point, but that does not mean the National Coalition can afford to let this situation worsen and to be regarded as an obstacle to a settlement.

As the jihadists gain ground, many countries will buy into Mr Al Assad’s narrative that his regime is a barrier to extremist groups. That he has done everything in his power to bring about this outcome is secondary. If the conflict is redefined as one between a supposedly “secular” regime and religious extremists, Mr Al Assad will have the latitude to gradually regain lost territory and many governments will turn a blind eye to his most barbaric crimes.

That is why Mr Sabra and his colleagues should maintain themselves as a reasonable, temperate alternative to the armed groups and to Mr Al Assad. A continuation of the military status quo is likely, which means that at some point the parties, out of sheer exhaustion, will have to negotiate, whatever their prior conditions.

To insist that the Syrian president must step down as a precondition for talks, no matter how desirable this is, will not work today. Only a favourable military balance can allow such a condition, and today the opposition is at a disadvantage.

Geneva is no panacea for the Syrian tragedy, but one day negotiating may become the only game in town. Syria’s opposition must prepare for it, rather than fight it, marginalise itself, and allow others to impose their agenda on Syria.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling