The Geneva II conference, the cornerstone of the efforts to reach a negotiated solution to the Syrian war, will convene today. It will be held despite the diplomatic pandemonium generated by the UN’s last-minute invitation to Iran and the subsequent withdrawal of that invitation on Monday, following US pressure and the Syrian opposition’s threats to not attend the conference.
With various Western governments backing the process and the US deeply involved in it, the question arises as to whether the recent turn of events on the Syrian battlefield will or should have any influence over the West’s approach to the conflict.
Over the last few weeks, heavy fighting between various rebel opposition groups has taken place in the governorates of Aleppo, Raqqa, Idlib, Hama and Deir Ezzor in northern and eastern Syria. The fighting has the Al-Qaeda affiliate Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the moderate military opposition, in opposition to one another. However, the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist rebel groups, has also sided with the FSA against ISIS. In Aleppo, the radical Al-Nusra Front also fought alongside the FSA against ISIS. As a result, ISIS has been expelled from areas it had previously held.
These armed clashes are not simply a result of competition among rival groups for control of swathes of Syrian territory. The practices of ISIS, including kidnappings, executions and the imposition of its extreme ideology in the areas it controls, are a key factor behind the opposition infighting. The brutal assassination of doctor Hussein Al-Suleiman, a commander of the powerful Ahrar Al-Sham rebel group that is part of the Islamic Front, seriously escalated the tensions.
The statement of the Islamic Front after Suleiman’s death read: “They kidnapped him and tortured him, and then killed him and disfigured his corpse, in a way unknown to the Syrian people prior to the revolution, even when it came to the branches of the criminal Assad regime’s security bodies.”
So why do these developments matter? They confirm the deep fragmentation of the opposition, surely. But they also come to challenge the notion so prevalent in Western capitals that the most radical groups are the most powerful opposition forces on the ground. It also serves as a reminder that Islamist and jihadist groups operating in Syria are not monolithic, and certainly not all of them pay lip service to Al-Qaeda’s strategy and transnational ideology.
Even with very limited military support from Western governments, the moderate rebels have sent a signal of resilience. The forces of President Bashar Al-Assad have tried to capitalize on the opposition infighting by re-capturing some positions in Aleppo and elsewhere, but so far reports indicate their gains have been relatively insignificant.
The Western governments’ choice of a very light footprint in terms of military support to the opposition might prove to be counterproductive in more than one way. It is not only about the need to place more pressure on Assad and provide the opposition with more leverage to negotiate from a stronger position. It is also about assisting those who are the only real obstacle to the spread of radical groups in Syria, and consequently elsewhere in the Levant. This is all the more relevant at a time when the idea that Assad can be an obstacle to the spread of those groups appears to be more than a mere rumor. Assad’s instrumental use of radical jihadists is longstanding and well-documented.
Endless points have been put forward to support the prioritization of a diplomatic solution to the conflict over stepping up the military support to the opposition. Central among these is the Geneva Communiqué of June 2012, which aims at peaceful resolution and supports the formation of a transitional government. It also includes an expression of commitment to the sovereignty, independence, national unity and territorial integrity of Syria and opposition to any further militarization of the conflict. Another main reason is the fear that weapons provided to the moderate opposition falling into the hands of radicals, some of whom reside in the West and will one day return home.
The West’s cautious approach to the presence of Al-Qaeda in Syria is puzzling, given its far more aggressive stance (in some cases, too aggressive) against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, or the Sahel. In this context, to not provide weapons to the moderate opposition—the only real obstacle to the spread of these groups in Syria—out of fear that such a move might have a boomerang effect seems incoherent. Reports of preparations of terrorist attacks in the West by Syria-based jihadists shows that threat can knock on the West’s door whether it gets more involved or not. In fact, the conflict dragging on plays in the extremists’ favor.
At this point, the Western governments’ endorsement of Geneva II seems to be driven more by a determination to not get involved than to put an end to the conflict. Less reluctant to support Assad militarily are Iran—the key Assad ally and patron—Hezbollah, and Russia. Iran is against the idea of a transitional government without Assad, and thus it will not be represented at the conference. The Russian government accepted the Geneva Communiqué, but it continues to supply the Syrian regime with weapons and military advice.
So when Western delegates in Switzerland sit at the table to negotiate with the Syrian government and the opposition, they might find out that the incentives for the Assad regime to compromise are very few, and the pressure for it to do so is very small.
In the meantime, ordinary Syrians and the moderate opposition remain caught between a barbaric regime and radical groups. A Syrian poet cautioned Syrians about it:
There are two gangs: one is ruling in the name of patriotism but has none of it.
Another gang claims good faith; and religion forbids their sayings and acts.
Two gangs. My people, be aware, of both! Both drink from the same evil waters.
These words were written in 1979, when Assad’s father was still in power. Tragically for all those Syrians who have to live through war and a harsh winter, this warning is more relevant than ever.