Middle East

Russian initiative for Syria sparks denials

Syrian youths take part in their last training on December 8, 2014 before being sent to the frontline along with rebel fighters from the Jaysh al-Islam brigades (Army of Islam) in Eastern al-Ghouta, a rebel-held region outside the capital Damascus. AFP PHOTO / ABD DOUMANY

BEIRUT: A Russian initiative to launch a “political solution” for the Syrian crisis has prompted leading military opposition figures inside and outside the country to heatedly deny their involvement in negotiations with the regime.

An opposition politician close to Gen. Manaf Tlas, whose name is being circulated as a possible lynch-pin for ending the war, said Thursday that Tlas categorically rejects becoming defense minister in a transitional government envisioned by the Russian initiative, because President Bashar Assad is expected to remain in power as part of the plan.

Tlas, 50, defected from the regime in the summer of 2012 and has been outside the country ever since.

Also denying any interest in negotiating with the regime is Zahran Alloush, the leader of the Islam Army militia, which has a strong presence in the countryside around Damascus.

Alloush this week denied that he was negotiating with the regime over a “truce” in the Damascus suburbs, saying that his forces would continue to battle both the regime and ISIS militants, which he labeled as “two sides of the same coin.”

Alloush was responding to media reports claiming that during a recent meeting with rebel leaders, he broached the topic of negotiating with the regime as part of a “political solution.”

Sources familiar with the Russian initiative say that it aims to gather regime and opposition figures in Moscow for a round of talks, possibly to be followed up in Damascus.

Opposition figures who might assume top government posts range from Ahmad Moaz Khatib, the ex-head of the opposition National Coalition, to members of Syria’s so-called “tolerated opposition.” None of them wields any significant influence with rebel militias, however.

The sources said the military side of the equation would be bolstered by roles for figures such as Tlas, and a number of other, defected officers, many of whom have not taken part in Syria’s war.

The initiative, the sources said, would see Assad remain in power with his influence limited to the Defense Ministry and intelligence agencies. Khatib would be a candidate for the premier’s job as some sort of “national reconciliation” government takes over from the current, Baath Party-dominated system.

A source familiar with the talks acknowledged that the chances of success are slight, particularly since Assad would retain control over the military and the intelligence agencies, which have been blamed for massive human rights violations.

Ending the war between the regime and rebels would in theory allow Syrian forces to concentrate on defeating ISIS militants, however.

While the regime appears to be acting from a position of strength, Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at Beirut Carnegie Middle East Center, highlighted the seeming contradiction in its position in an opinion article published Friday in Al-Hayat newspaper.

The regime, he wrote, has “exuded confidence” over its improved strategic situation but it is also “increasingly stretched, militarily and financially,” as loyalists complain about the unending stream of casualties, and the deteriorating socioeconomic situation.

Its refusal to engage politically with its adversaries, and even its own, domestic constituencies, he wrote, represents its “Achilles’ Heel,” as it grinds down its own loyalist base.

Some observers and anti-regime activists believe the Russian initiative has little chance of success and label it an exercise in “buying time,” with the U.S. uninterested in pushing the conflict toward a resolution. Observers also question whether Turkey, a backer of rebel groups, will endorse a solution that doesn’t guarantee Assad’s departure from power.

Another initiative is being championed by U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura, who has been promoting a “freeze” of the fighting in Aleppo with both the regime and rebel leaders – but no breakthroughs have been announced as yet.

An anti-regime activist in the Damascus suburbs, where rebel leader Alloush is based, said military operations in the area had in recent days declined noticeably, as talk of secret negotiations pick up steam despite Alloush’s denials. He said “meanwhile the prices of everyday goods are skyrocketing.”

“It’s as if we’re being pressured, or prepared, to accept a truce,” the activist said. “Alloush, despite what some people say, is still in a strong position,” he added. “But there’s very little [outside military] assistance coming in for military operations against the regime – the support is coming if you’re going to fight ISIS.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 13, 2014, on page 1.

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