Syrian factions seek common ground ahead of talks

Years of carnage are forcing rival groups to see the value of a united national vision

Since unrest erupted in Syria in mid-March 2011, opposition figures and factions have multiplied and mutated on the political level, making common action impossible.

However, after four years of bloodshed and destruction, they are attempting to agree on a minimum programme to put to the government in Russian-sponsored talks scheduled for the end of next month.

The factions involved in this effort are the expatriate body backed by western and Gulf Arab governments and domestic groups formerly shunned as “regime-tolerated”.

A game-changer may have come at the weekend when US secretary of state John Kerry said the US supported efforts to find a political settlement and understood it would have to negotiate with the Syrian government. The state department issued a qualifying statement saying Kerry was not referring specifically to Bashar al-Assad and insisting the US would never negotiate with the Syrian leader.

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Nevertheless, serious dialogue and agreement on a roadmap by external and internal opposition groups could produce pressure to reach agreement.

Unfortunately, the US and its Arab allies have also begun training of 5,000 "moderate" insurgents, initially to fight Islamic State and ultimately the Syrian regime.

The divided Muslim Brotherhood-dominated opposition Syrian National Coalition remains the key expatriate player. Formed under Turkish patronage in August 2011 and expanded under Qatari guidance in November 2012, the coalition soon received international recognition.

However, only the first of its succession of leaders, Moaz al-Khatib, former preacher at the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus, had any following within Syria. He resigned six months after being appointed, citing interference in policymaking by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Ethnic Turks

Current coalition head is

Khaled Khoja

, a Brotherhood member from Syria’s ethnic Turkish minority who resides in

Turkey

and is seen as Ankara’s man. He succeeded Hadi al-Bahra, a businessman regarded as Riyadh’s choice.

Ahmad Jarba

, a tribal figure with Saudi connections preceded him, defeating Qatar’s nominee

Mustafa Sabbagh

.

Since the US, France, Britain and, lately, Egypt also seek to influence the Syrian National Coalition, it is torn by rival and competing regional and international pressures, preventing the adoption of a common policy. For example, when the coalition as a whole refused to dispatch representatives to last year's UN-brokered negotiations with the government, individual coalition members attended as a delegation.

This was repeated again in January, when coalition figures, including Jarba, attended talks in Moscow with UN ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari, representing the government. This could be repeated for the second round in Moscow although the Russians are urging coalition attendance as one body.

In preparation for this gathering, coalition leaders met in Cairo and Paris with counterparts from domestic opposition groups, including the National Co-ordination Board (NCB), headed by Hassan Abdel Azim, the National Democratic Action Committee formed by NCB dissident Mahmoud Marai, and and Building the Syrian State (BSS), led by Louay Hussein.

Paris NCB spokesman Haitam Manaa – who is ready to resign – has tried to mediate between the external and internal factions, while BSS co-founder Mona Ghanem met with Khoja with the aim of securing consensus on fundamental principles on which negotiations with the government would be based.

According to BSS spokesman Anas Joudeh, the factions must commit to preserving the sovereignty and unity of the state, land and people; maintaining state institutions and the army; fighting terrorism; building state structures; and ensuring political freedoms. But even these basic principles have been disputed and Cairo, sponsor of the inter-opposition talks, refuses to grant entry to Egypt to Brotherhood members of the coalition.

On the positive side, Joudeh said the coalition had dropped its insistence Assad should step down at the outset of the transition, a demand that scuppered last year’s UN-mediated talks.

Another opposition figure, Bassam al-Malik, said preparatory discussions in Cairo could feature proposals for an interim constitution and for Assad to stay in power for two more years. This is likely to be rejected by Damascus since a new constitution was adopted by referendum in 2012 and Assad was elected to a seven-year term last June.

Regime radicals

Joudeh warned if negotiations failed, Syria could follow

Libya

into total chaos or face the “two black flags” of Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra in the north, regime “radicals” in control of government-held areas and continuing warfare in the south.

Even if the fractured and fractious opposition factions and Damascus agree on a plan, they have no control over the hundreds of armed factions fighting the government and each other. The most powerful forces, Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, regard the expatriate coalition as a western creation, dismiss the domestic opposition as government-manufactured and consider both to be impotent.