A Russian initiative to revive Syria’s dormant peace process in Moscow later this month appears to be on the verge of collapse, as questions about Russia’s role as arbiter threatens to extinguish even a dim flicker of hope for an end to Syria’s bloody civil war.
Over the past few months, Russia has been trying to convince Syria’s major opposition leaders to attend a round of negotiations slated for Jan. 26 — the first major effort to restart Syria’s peace process since a U.N.-led effort ground to a halt last year.
Opposition leaders told Al Jazeera on Saturday that the Russians have failed to present a clear agenda for the conference, and noted that only certain elements of the Syrian opposition — those deemed tolerable by the Bashar al-Assad regime — have been invited to Moscow. According to Ali Amin al-Suweid, a political officer with the Syrian Revolution General Commission, most of those currently committed to attending as ostensible “opposition” members are “nothing more than the other face of the regime itself.”
The chances that Syria’s opposition would agree to join peace talks mediated by Russia, the regime’s most important backer, were always slim. But feeling pressure from war-weary Syrians and aware that their armed counterparts on the ground — the so-called moderate rebels — were floundering, many did not rule out attending altogether until very recently.
Deciding whether to attend talks with the regime has always been contentious for Syria’s political leadership-in-exile, which suffers from dwindling legitimacy on the ground and is accused of legitimizing the Assad regime by talking face-to-face.
The Syrian National Coalition, a Western-backed umbrella group, formally rejected its invitation last week, saying it would only change its mind if Assad’s departure is a precondition of the talks — an impossible ask. “Going to Moscow while Assad still holds hundreds of thousands of civilians and peaceful protesters in his secret jails and rains death and destruction on Syrian cities and towns will direct a coup de grace to Syria,” said Nasr al-Hariri, a high-ranking SNC official, in a statement this week.
For his part, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that key opposition figures were merely engaging in “tactical maneuvering” and that they would ultimately show up in Moscow. Ahead of the Geneva talks, such threats of boycott were common.
Talal al-Mayhani, a co-founder and European President of Building the Syrian State, said his group was committed to a political solution but that it was up to the regime and its patron, Russia, to initiate trust-building measures — such as a prisoner release. His group's leader, Louay Hussein, was jailed by the regime this past fall.
“It’s hard to sit down with fighters in somewhere like [the northern city of] Idlib and convince them there’s serious negotiation going on when they don’t see any sort of change on the ground,” al-Mayhani said. “A prisoner release is in everyone’s interest because that will help us to convince different rebel factions to sit together.”
He noted that the opposition wanted guarantees the regime’s negotiators actually had the authority to make decisions, rather than return to Damascus for consultations, as was the case with the Geneva talks. “Most of the time they send people who can’t say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ we just discuss and then they leave,” he said. “This sort of negotiation is useless.”
By one interpretation, the apparent unraveling of Moscow’s efforts underline how, after four years and 220,000 dead, Syria’s climate of distrust has only worsened.
But others say there are also signs that both sides' calculus is gradually shifting behind the scenes, however entrenched Syria’s stalemate may seem.
For its part, the opposition has grown wary that the United States and its Western allies have become increasingly preoccupied with the rise of ISIL and are losing interest in the drawn-out uprising against Assad, who poses little direct threat to the West. The Pentagon is set to begin training up to 5,000 Free Syrian Army soldiers, ostensibly to counter both Assad and ISIL, but most analysts believe the U.S. military aid is too little and comes too late to make a real difference.
The opposition’s anxieties were exacerbated last week, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gave the Russia talks his tentative endorsement, saying he hoped they “could be helpful.” It caught many in the rebel camp off-guard that Washington, which has always butted heads with Russia over its steadfast support for the Syrian dictator, would even half-heartedly sign off on a Russian-mediated negotiation.
At the same time, analysts have suggested that the Assad regime's could come under added pressure of its own, if plummeting oil prices put its two most important backers, the petro-states Russia and Iran, in a pinch. The Syrian economy has been gutted, and electricity and water cuts are grating on the populace. All the while, ISIL consolidates its hold on over one-third of Syrian territory.
If the Russian effort folds, it is unclear what other hope lies on the horizon. U.N. envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura is mounting a parallel effort to stem the violence in Syria by brokering tiny “freezes” in fighting — beginning in the symbolic city of Aleppo — meant to dodge the intractable, big-picture issues that have thwarted national peace talks in the past.
But analysts are highly skeptical of even this modest proposal, noting the regime’s track record of exploiting cease-fires to redeploy its forces elsewhere, as well as the imbalance of power in Aleppo that would make it illogical for Assad to deny himself what many see as an inevitable victory.
In the absence of a diplomatic breakthrough, Suweid said the opposition will take its chances with a military solution. “Unfortunately, the situation will continue as it is now until the FSA can catch its breath again,” said Suweid.