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Rise and fall of Syrian rebel negotiator leaves peace talk hopes in tatters

The resignation of Salafi hardliner Mohammed Alloush as the Syrian opposition’s chief negotiator has dealt a fresh blow to the stalled peace talks but there were already serious doubts about resuming the process long before he stood down.
Mohammed Alloush, the Syrian opposition's chief negotiator, stood down over the continued violence carried out by Bashar Al Assad's forces. / AFP / FABRICE COFFRINI
Mohammed Alloush, the Syrian opposition's chief negotiator, stood down over the continued violence carried out by Bashar Al Assad's forces. / AFP / FABRICE COFFRINI

BEIRUT // The resignation of the Syrian opposition’s chief negotiator has dealt a fresh blow to the stalled peace talks between the government and rebels.

Mohammed Alloush of the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee blamed his decision on the regime’s stubbornness and “its continued bombardments and aggressions towards the Syrian people”.

“The endless negotiations are harming the fate of the Syrian people,” he said late on Sunday.

Mr Alloush also leads Jaish Al Islam, a hardline Salafi faction that is seen as one of the most powerful rebel fighting forces in Syria.

A countrywide ceasefire that took effect in February and a partial withdrawal of Russian forces a month later created some optimism that talks in Geneva would make progress. But instead, the Syrian government continued to refuse to discuss the political future of president Bashar Al Assad and the truce increasingly dissolved over the weeks and months.

On April 18, as violence in Syria escalated and negotiations stalled, the opposition walked away from the peace talks.

Given the abrupt end to the last round of talks and the failure to reconvene negotiators since, there were already serious doubts about resuming the peace process before Mr Alloush resigned. If the Syrian opposition wants to return to negotiations, they will likely have to find a replacement who is a bit more palatable to the government than Mr Alloush — a man despised by the regime, to a point that direct, fruitful negotiations seemed improbable.

Despised by the regime

Under the leadership of his brother-in-law and cousin Zahran, Jaish Al Islam used caged Alawites, including civilians, as human shields in November last year. Zahran Alloush — who was killed in a Russian air strike in December — had also called for Shiites and Alawites to be cleansed from parts of Syria. The ruling Al Assad family are Alawite.

Not long after the Syrian government and rebel factions agreed to a ceasefire agreement in February, Jaish Al Islam declared the truce dead. As the ceasefire largely held across much of the country, the group continued battling government forces on multiple fronts.

Jaish Al Islam’s spokesman Captain Islam Alloush told The National in March, that the group believed the ceasefire was a cover for the government to launch attacks on rebels near Damascus, and that there was little hope for a negotiated peace in Geneva.

As peace talks collapsed last month, Jaish Al Islam and a number of other rebel factions formally announced they were beginning a new offensive against the Syrian government. At the time, Mr Alloush tweeted that rebels should “strike them [the government] at their necks. Strike them everywhere”.

Russia has also shown strong opposition to working with Jaish Al Islam, with the Kremlin requesting last month that the United Nations Security Council declare the group a terrorist organisation.

The upper hand

With the peace process already largely seen as dead, Mr Alloush’s resignation may just be another sign of their failure more than a reason for their collapse.

“Geneva process is on its last legs,” wrote Charles Lister, a Syria expert with the Middle East Institute, on Twitter. Mohammed Alloush’s “resignation as chief negotiator should be seen as a final warning: no progress, no talks”, he added.

As the leader of one of the Syrian war’s most powerful factions and an official who was hesitant to negotiate in the first place and in fact, continued to advocate fighting the government during the peace process, Mr Alloush’s resignation could make a number of like-minded Salafi groups less willing to return to talks. For the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, trying to keep powerful groups like Jaish Al Islam in the fold will be essential if they hope to return to peace talks.

If the opposition wants to return to the negotiating table again, they would likely want to pick a chief negotiator who is less abrasive to the Syrian government than Mr Alloush.

That is, of course, if the government actually wants to negotiate.

The Syrian government has the upper hand on the battlefield and few convincing reasons to return to talks. The government took advantage of the truce to deploy additional forces to Aleppo along with Russian artillery. Observers of the Syrian conflict are still waiting for a major government offensive on the city, where rebels are already nearly encircled.

At the peace talks, little progress was made on key opposition demands like giving the besieged population access to aid, freeing prisoners and discussing a political transition in Syria and the future of Mr Assad.

Even if the regime wants to negotiate — now or in the near future, it will be hard getting rebel factions on board. The cycle of talks, inaction and a return to violence has broken whatever trust most rebels have in the government’s commitment to the negotiations. They were wary of peace talks from the start despite potential reasons for optimism. But at this point, every move the government makes is viewed as a trick designed to further corner them.

jwood@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse​

This article has been updated to reflect the correct relationship between Mohammed and Zahran Alloush

Updated: May 30, 2016 04:00 AM

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