It would be an overstatement to describe it as appeasement. But National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces leader Moaz al-Khatib’s hastily arranged meeting with Russia and Iran in, of all places, Munich, and his sudden volte face about talking with serving members of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has uncomfortable parallels.
Seventy-five years ago, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain traveled to Munich for talks with Adolf Hitler to avert a European war. Chamberlain, whose policy was to work with the dictator and appease his grievances, left the city convinced he had secured “peace in our time.” A year later Europe, and the rest of the world, was engulfed in the bloodiest war in its history, a war that also had far reaching consequences for the Middle East.
Whether Khatib’s meeting with Sergei Lavrov and Ali Akbar Salehi, the foreign ministers of Russia and Iran respectively, and his offer to hold talks with Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa will, as Khatib’s critics insist, embolden Syrian President Bashar Assad, as Chamberlain’s meeting emboldened Hitler, is a moot point. But by the time Khatib had left Munich it was clear his diplomacy had revealed further cracks in the coalition.
The coalition was established, at Western urging, to envelop the Syrian National Council, a grouping effectively dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood but that had also become divided and increasingly marginalized as Syria descended into civil war. The SNC failed to attract cash or support from minorities and rebels at the sharp end of the conflict who saw it as being under Turkey’s influence.
The coalition is more inclusive than the SNC, although it is worth pointing out that it doesn’t include all of Syria’s minorities, most notably Syria’s Kurdish parties. But it was founded on the categorical rejection of any talks with the Assad regime. This was an insistence of those opposed to forming the coalition, primarily the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and other militant Islamists, who feared the West was attempting to curb their power and influence and steer the opposition into talks with the regime.
While George Sabra, the coalition’s deputy leader and Syrian National Council president, has backtracked on his initial criticism of Khatib – cries of “stabbing rebels in the back” have died down – and tacitly backed the move, it is clear that many coalition members have deep misgivings about Khatib’s diplomatic efforts, not least because his offer to talk to the regime comes unnervingly hard on the heels of Assad’s own absurd invitation to his opponents to return to Damascus for talks, a move clearly aimed at dividing the opposition.
Indeed, sources within the coalition insist that the reason former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who defected and joined the opposition last year, hasn’t been appointed prime minister in waiting is because many in the opposition, not just the Muslim Brotherhood, refuse to deal with anyone who has served in the Assad regime.
With that in mind, it’s unlikely that the opposition will agree with one voice to opening a dialogue with someone as senior as Sharaa, who is at the very least supporting the regime’s bloody campaign.
An emergency meeting of the coalition is scheduled to take place to discuss Khatib’s diplomacy – his offer of talks and trip to Munich were entirely his own initiatives – which should clarify the situation either way. But it’s important to note that Khatib’s “go it alone” diplomacy is an honest attempt to break the diplomatic log jam that for over two years has left an estimated 60,000 Syrians dead and tens of thousands more as refugees in neighboring countries. It is a recognition that as the war approaches its second anniversary with no end in sight, the opposition has been powerless to achieve its goals, and the longer it goes on, the greater the risk of further divisions within the opposition and regional overspill.
For the opposition to remain relevant it must deliver something. In the absence of decisive action by the West or agreement with Russia, which has blocked three United Nations Resolutions aimed at ending the war or forcing Assad to stand down, Khatib has few options.
Whatever the discontent with coalition, the West feels it can do business with Khatib, and the rebels on the ground appear to respect him more than many other elements in the opposition, who are seen as “hotel warriors.”
Khatib insists talks are conditional on the regime releasing 160,000 detainees and issuing passports for thousands of Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries. But by his actions he has adopted the so-called Geneva Plan put forward by the U.N. and supported by Russia and the West, that allows Assad to remain in power while talks take place.
A British Foreign Office official firmly backed Khatib’s move. She said: “Mr. Al-Khatib has the full support of the U.K., U.S. and France on his conditional offer to negotiate with the Assad regime. We cannot shift Assad, but Russia can. It goes without saying that Khatib would want to take his argument to the Russians, the Chinese and eventually the Iranians. They hold the key to Assad’s response to the offer.”
It all makes sense to the West then. But that doesn’t mean it makes sense to everyone in the opposition, particularly those who believe the West isn’t doing enough to aid the rebels. Western support is strictly limited and likely to remain so. Although the U.K. has called for a review of the European Union arms embargo on Syria, which expires on March 1, a ban on arming the rebels is likely to remain.
U.S. President Barack Obama has steadfastly refused to put guns in the hands of rebels, overruling advice from former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, as well as former CIA chief and Afghan war commander David Petraeus. There is a chance that now that Obama has been safely re-elected, he may relent, but the smart money says the risk of U.S.-supplied weapons ending up in the hands of rebel forces linked to Al-Qaeda will ensure the current policy remains in place.
But opposition insiders insist the coalition’s increasing unhappiness with Western support isn’t simply about arms. Last week one told me: “The coalition hasn’t enough money to operate the government due to hesitation of the international community and the Friends of Syria.”
He added: “The Syrian people and the opposition are losing hope with the West, and the friends of Syria, who offered very little. The world watches the regime’s carnage and just issues instructions and warnings, spreading cold views to people in the worst conditions.”
The West created the coalition to have a political entity that it could work with and fill the void when Assad is finally toppled. But the fact remains that the coalition has failed to present a united front and offer a convincing blueprint for Syria’s transition to democracy. This past week offered a reminder that it is difficult to see the coalition heading a popularly backed transitional government or maintaining control of myriad armed groups in a war-torn country. Khatib appears to be making the coalition’s policy on a personal or ad-hoc basis because he cannot reach agreement to pursue them otherwise.
No one can accuse Khatib of failing to pursue every available opportunity to end this bloody war. But he may yet find that his trip to Munich offers as little comfort in the long term as Chamberlain’s visit to the same city did 75 years ago, if all he achieves is to divide the opposition and encourage Assad to continue a bloody war.
Michael Glackin, a former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR, is a writer in London.