x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Syrian stalemate underlines unbridgeable divide

The regime wants to keep an iron grip on power. The opposition wants nothing less than its removal. Despite an offer of talks, there is still no end in sight to Syria's bloody conflict. Phil Sands reports from Damascus

Members of the Free Syrian Army gather in the Khan Al Assal area near Aleppo. A ceasefire, or compromise, looks unlikely.
Members of the Free Syrian Army gather in the Khan Al Assal area near Aleppo. A ceasefire, or compromise, looks unlikely.

DAMASCUS //After the Syrian opposition leader, Moaz Al Khatib, offered to open negotiations with president Bashar Al Assad last week, he said the matter was "now in the state's court" and that he was waiting for a response to his proposal.

Yesterday, and it is worth noting the offer has not yet merited a more formal reply, the regime, or at least, its supporters did answer. An editorial in the pro-government daily newspaper, Al Watan, said that, in fact, the ball was in Mr Al Khatib's court.

The two sides may be using the same sporting cliche but their inability to agree on where the figurative ball actually is neatly sums up the unbridgeable divide separating them.

For all the talk of talks, and despite the backing given them by the United States, Russia and Iran - the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation is also expected to endorse the idea - there is still no common ground between even the more moderate strand of the opposition, represented by the liberal-minded Mr Al Khatib and the Syrian regime.

The opposition's offer, and many within the fractured opposition front have themselves already rejected it, has caveats attached.

It requires 160,000 political prisoners be freed and passports returned to exiles, clauses Mr Al Khatib surely knows will never be met.

Confirming the release of so many detainees, and no one actually has precise numbers as to how many there are, would require a full, independent audit of prisoners, something the regime has never permitted, even to the Red Cross, on grounds of national sovereignty. Activists said that is, in part, because many of those arrested are killed by the security services.

Fayez Sayegh, a Syrian MP - by definition therefore a regime supporter - yesterday said as much. There can be no preconditions for talks set by the opposition, he said adding the issue of prisoners was designed to embarrass the government.

Similarly, Mr Al Khatib's nomination of Syrian vice president, Farouk Al Sharaa, as an acceptable regime envoy in the negotiations is an improbable one. He might be acceptable to Mr Al Khatib but is almost certainly not to the regime.

Mr Al Sharaa broke months of silence with a surprise, forthright newspaper interview last year in which he criticised the regime's conduct and compared the Syrian uprising to the democratic revolutions in Europe that led to the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989.

That could hardly be further from Mr Al Assad's analysis: that he is facing a plot joining foreign forces and Islamist militants in a war to destroy Syria, a country he is leading on the road to democracy and reform. Mr Al Sharaa's interview was dismissed by regime officials at the time as nothing more than the opinions of an ordinary citizen, not the considered thoughts of a senior and long-standing assistant to the president.

His name has cropped up before, when the Arab League proposed him as an acceptable head for a transitional government back in 2011. That suggestion, together with the league itself, was dismissed as treacherous by the authorities in Damascus. So much for Mr Al Sharaa. These issues are, anyway, merely diversions from the heart of the matter.

Clarifying his proposal on Al Jazeera television this week, Mr Al Khatib said that any negotiations would be concerned with helping "the regime to leave peacefully".

That regime, as it has made plain, has no intention of leaving, peacefully or otherwise. It considers itself the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, under foreign attack. Mr Al Assad's position is not up for discussion, it said. He is the president of Syria and at a minimum will contest elections next year. At those, his supporters believe, he will win a third seven-year term of office.

Having fought at enormous cost for two years to retain its position, the regime is hardly about to meekly negotiate itself out of existence.

Mr Al Assad had already proposed his own plan, which requires the unconditional surrender of armed groups, something rejected by opposition factions.

The two sides in the conflict have, therefore, proposed two sets of talks with two sets of preconditions attached. Each has been rejected by the other.

In its editorial, Al Watan said the opposition had proposed negotiations two years too late, after too much bloodshed and destruction, and that Mr Al Khatib could not simultaneously side with violent extremists and claim he is serious about negotiations.

Mr Al Khatib and anti-Assad factions have often said the same of the regime.

It is not just that the opposition and the Syrian authorities cannot agree on whose court the ball is in.

They have a opposite understandings of what the aim of the deadly game is.

One wants nothing short of regime change, the other nothing short of regime survival.

Under these circumstances, it is hard to see why negotiations - even if they were to take place - would be any more successful than two years' worth of failed diplomatic initiatives.

psands@thenational.ae

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