It should appear obvious to most that for peace talks between two warring sides to succeed, both of them need to be present. One could go so far as to question whether negotiations that do not include both sides constitute “talks” at all. (A peace monologue perhaps?)
But that is what will transpire in Geneva next month, if the Syrian government sits across the table from the Western-backed opposition-in-exile in an attempt to hammer out a deal.
That is what the head of the Arab League, the UN Secretary General and the UK Foreign Office are all aiming for. The date of 23 November has been given for the crucial talks, which will – they hope – bring about a ceasefire.
But noble though the aim may be, it is very likely that the talks will either not take place at all or be a complete waste of time.
The Syrian National Coalition – for all its faults the official opposition as far as Damascus and the West is concerned – is due to meet on November 1 to decide whether to attend. The omens are not good: we have already heard from the Syrian National Council, one of the coalition’s largest factions, that it will not be there.
It is entirely possible of course that the coalition will come to some sort of agreement and its members will swap their hotels in Istanbul for hotels in Geneva, but it is almost entirely irrelevant if they do. That is because the SNC no longer represents the majority of rebels fighting on the ground in Syria. The group’s influence with the multitude of fighting groups has waned significantly over the past year, and in the last few weeks it has all but disintegrated.
Towards the end of September, a statement from 13 of the most powerful rebels groups fighting in Syria denounced the SNC as “unrepresentative” and announced the formation of a new “Islamic Coalition”.
Perhaps the most significant of the signatories were the rebel groups Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam, and Suqor al-Sham, which make up a large part of the SNC’s military might. The departure of those three groups from under the SNC’s umbrella “effectively depletes the SNC’s armed wing,” the Supreme Military Council (SMC), headed by General Salam Idriss, analyst Charles Lister noted.
A little over two weeks later, another statement was released, this one signed by 70 rebel groups fighting mainly in northern Syria. “Having seen the failure of the political groups that claim to represent the opposition and the revolutionary groups... we leaders of the military and revolutionary groups in the southern provinces withdraw our recognition from any political group that claims to represent us,” a rebel spokesman said.
So even if the SNC attends the talks in Geneva, the Syrian government will not be negotiating with the rebels. They could make any deal they like but it would not be honoured by those who matter.
How did it come to this? How did the West’s great hope of a moderate leadership to replace Assad fall from grace so dramatically? Two moments from the past year serve to illustrate where the SNC failed.
The first took place in May - fittingly, in the lobby of an Istanbul hotel (the SNC’s influence has rarely reached beyond those revolving doors). It was a month before the last time the coalition was due to sit down with the Syrian government in Geneva, and a meeting had been called to prepare for the talks and to expand its membership to include wider representation – a demand of the West. The meeting ended in disarray, with jostling for influence and position taking precedent over a unified front.
The rebels were not ignorant to the bickering in Istanbul – it could be heard hundreds of miles away in the destroyed cities of Aleppo and Homs. It was all on video after all. A piece of footage emerged from the doomed gathering shortly afterwards showed a French diplomat angrily remonstrating with gathered opposition figures for being unable to agree on the number of seats they would allocate to each faction in the coalition.
“You don’t deserve the effort that we made,” the French ambassador to Syria barked at a group of them. Addressing the SNC general secretary, Mustafa Al Sabbagh, he asks whether his conditions on the number of seats his bloc requires in the coalition is worth risking Assad staying in power.
“My conditions are more important and urgent,” came the reply. That statement speaks for itself.
Months later, as told in the New York Times, a rebel fighter named Hassan Tabanja made an arduous 18 hour bus journey from the Syrian border to Istanbul, where a SNC meeting was taking place. He was there to beg the group to send support for fighters back home; weapons, money, food, anything. After two days Tabanja was unsuccessful in soliciting what he needed from the political representatives of the revolution. What they provided, he told the paper, “will barely get me back to Syria.”
Both stories perfectly illustrate the disconnect between the opposition in Istanbul and the fighting on the ground. Rebels will tell anyone who listens of their disdain for the SNC leaders who spend their time arguing amongst themselves and seeking influence with Western powers while they fight and die in Syria.
Useless though it appears to have been, the collapse of the SNC has dramatic implications for the future of the Syrian conflict. It was the organisation marked out early on in the conflict as the conduit through which any military aid from the West would pass. The depletion of its fighting force is likely to dramatically reduce the chances of military assistance from the US and the UK. Even if the political will to do so existed, many Western diplomats must be wondering whether there are any serviceable ‘moderate’ fighting brigades left to give the weapons to.
But there are more barriers to peace. There now exists significant, insurmountable divisions between the rebels on the ground. Factionalism is a pastime in this part of the world, and seemingly not wanting to be outdone by their former political representatives, various rebel groups in the north of the country are in a virtual state of war against each other.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), an offshoot of al-Qa’ida, recently overran the border town of Azaz and forced out the Northern Storm Brigades, nominally under the command of General Idriss and by extension the SNC. In the north east, ISIS and its fellow ideological traveller Jabhat al-Nusra have been fighting, kidnapping and executing Kurdish rebel groups for months. SMC-affiliated brigades are increasingly involved in skirmishes with ISIS.
The ‘moderate’ rebels courted by the West were always going to come to blows with al-Qa’ida, but with the Syrian army holding firm across much of the country and the capital Damascus, the conflict feels like a strikingly premature battle over the form of a post-Assad Syria, without having dealt with the most obvious problem first.
The alliances that are being made and broken by this intra-rebel fighting have not yet fully formed. What is clear, however, is that Syria’s anti-government forces are hopelessly divided.
End not in sight
It is a common characteristic of intractable Middle Eastern conflicts that everyone with a passing interest knows exactly what needs to happen for a conflict to end. Syria is less clear in this respect.
The British Conservative MP Rory Stewart, a man experienced in the pitfalls of intervention in the Middle East, best outlined the thinking in the West when he spoke earlier this year of a negotiated solution which would see Assad step down but allow for remnants of his regime to stay intact – including the army – in return for the inclusion of the Syrian opposition in government.
The trouble is that the extremists on both sides will not allow it to happen. Bashar al-Assad and the more radical among the many groups he is fighting both feel as though they are on the rise. Assad’s forces are having success in pushing back the rebels from strategic points around the country, and ISIS, for the first time, controls towns, villages and oil fields. Why would either of them stop now?
Everyone agrees that negotiations between the Syrian government and the rebels it is fighting is the only way to end this war. For that to happen, both sides need to first realise that they cannot crush the other. Sadly, we are not quite there yet.
The SNC and its affiliated fighters were the only ones likely to attend talks in Geneva, but with their influence both on and off the battlefield at an all-time low, it really doesn’t matter if they do.