As Damascus reverses military losses in much of the country’s strategically important west, and foreign states cut support for rebel forces, diplomats from Washington to Riyadh are asking representatives of Syria’s opposition to come to terms with President Bashar Assad’s political survival.
The country’s civil war has crossed the halfway point of its sixth year and Assad and his allies are now in control of Syria’s four largest cities and its Mediterranean coast. With the help of Russian air power and Iranian-sponsored militias, pro-government forces are marching steadily across the energy-rich Homs province to reach the Euphrates River valley.
Western and regional rebel patrons, currently more focused on advancing their own interests rather than accomplishing regime change in Damascus, are shifting their alliances and have ceased calls on Assad to step down.
“There is no conceivable military alignment that’s going to be able to remove him,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, now a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. “Everyone including the U.S. has recognized that Assad is staying.”
The war has settled into a familiar, lower-intensity grind, with the Syrian government now in control of most of the populated west while Islamic State group militants and al-Qaida affiliates, U.S.-backed Kurds and Turkey-backed rebels hold on to remaining pockets in the north, east and south. Russia-sponsored so-called de-escalation zones have significantly reduced violence in rebel-held territory although fighting continues to rage in some areas.
With another round of U.N. mediated peace talks on the horizon in Geneva, the opposition’s chief representative group, the High Negotiations Committee, is being told by even its closest patrons it risks irrelevance if it does not adapt to the new realities.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, according to an interlocutor briefed on the matter, told the opposition it was time to formulate “a new vision.”
“He didn’t explicitly say Bashar is going to stay, but if you read between the lines, if you say there needs to be a new vision, what is the most contentious issue out there? It’s whether Bashar stays,” said the interlocutor, who mediates between the opposition and state capitals and requested anonymity so as not to compromise his work.
It is a difficult pill to swallow for the opposition, which has been holding a series of meetings as part of a months-long stock-taking process where they are expected to narrow their aims and refresh their leadership.
At a two-day meeting in Riyadh this week meant to try and bridge differences between the three main political opposition groups and come up with a unified vision based on the new political and military reality, divisions were however once again on full display.
The opposition’s chief representative group, the Saudi-based High Negotiations Committee (HNC), publicly held on to its position that Assad must step down before any political transition. In a statement, it said the opposition group known as the “Moscow Platform” insisted Assad’s departure must not be a precondition for talks.
“We refuse any role for Assad during a transitional period,” insisted spokesman Ahmad Ramadan of the National Syrian Coalition, the leading bloc in the HNC, which has always staked out a maximalist position against Assad.
But internally, there is talk of restructuring the HNC to give weight to the more conciliatory voices among the opposition — representatives based in Cairo and Moscow that groups within the HNC have long derided as the “internal opposition” for their perceived cozy relations with Damascus.
It comes at the urging of the U.N.’s top Syria envoy, Staffan De Mistura, who spent much of the last Geneva talks trying to reconcile the HNC and the Cairo and Moscow groups.
De Mistura set expectations last week that those efforts would bear fruit. He said the opposition was in the midst of “intensive internal discussions” in order to come up with “a more inclusive and perhaps even more pragmatic approach” to negotiations, saying he hoped an outcome could materialize by October.
The shifts reflect the changing priorities of the opposition’s chief backers — the U.S., Europe, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia — which are now more concerned with preserving their own, narrowly conceived strategic interests, than they are with unseating Assad.
For the U.S., that means focusing on fighting the Islamic State group and containing Iran’s influence in Syria, to protect its ally Israel. Saudi Arabia, too, wants to contain its regional archrival, Iran, as well as wrest influence away from Qatar, which is seen as a key backer to the HNC and some rebel groups on the ground. Ankara’s top priority is to contain the U.S.-backed Kurdish PYD party in north Syria, which it fears will inspire Kurdish separatism in east Turkey.
Indeed, these nations have never seriously challenged Assad’s hegemony, militarily, leaving Russia and Iran holding the cards.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama fastidiously avoided striking Assad’s forces, even after his administration concluded Damascus had trespassed the president’s “red line” against chemical warfare; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is reported to have told the U.N.’s general secretary in July that President Trump’s administration would leave Syria’s fate in Russia’s hands.
Government forces have blocked agencies from delivering relief to several areas it has held under siege, and while the U.N. has condemned the tactic as “barbaric” and “medieval,” it has been criticized for paying dividends to Damascus, which has seen these areas capitulate one by one. Russia’s own leverage over the opposition comes from negotiating cease-fires for besieged areas, which are otherwise pounded mercilessly by air strikes and artillery.
It’s not clear what the truces buy in the long term and the same can be said about the opposition’s reorientation, if such a thing indeed happens. At a rare public speech before Syrian diplomats in Damascus this week, a confident Assad derided the West and declared Syria will look east when it comes to political, economic and cultural relations.
It remains to be seen whether the opposition, long plagued by divisions, can indeed reconstitute itself into a more accommodating coalition, as capitals from Washington to Moscow have demanded.