After the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, there is renewed focus on the struggling Syrian peace process. All sides seem to finally agree that the Syria problem is an urgent one, and they are eager to make progress. Thus, we heard an optimistic announcement from Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this week that the Syrian transition could be just “weeks away”, but the roadmap to get there remains very unclear. This piece at The Guardian does a reasonably good job of summing the situation up from the perspective of the Western nations.
Basically, everyone is at least nominally on board for a transition, including countries as diametrically opposed as Iran and Saudi Arabia. But significant disagreement remains on the details. And these remaining areas of disagreement have the potential to delay or derail the peace process, prolonging the suffering of the Syrian people and increasing the threat of foreign terrorism. It’s therefore important to understand what these differences are.
One issue on the table is exactly who comprises the “moderate” opposition in Syria. You’ll recall that President Obama once called the idea of an armed “moderate” opposition in Syria a “fantasy”–by which, he meant that most of the people fighting against President Assad in Syria were extremists. But one of the key goals of this transition process is to broker a ceasefire between that same opposition and the Syrian government. Thus, the question is Who qualifies as part of the legitimate “moderate” Syrian opposition and gets a seat at the negotiating table? According to The Guardian article, the Jordanians have been tasked with sorting out the extremists from the moderates, but the opposition members quoted in the article are already concerned that Jordan will be too picky. From the article:
Opposition sources say they also fear that the Jordanian vetting process will exclude the majority of armed rebel groups and certainly important non-jihadi Islamist ones such as Ahrar al-Sham, and thus play into Assad’s hands.
Coincidentally, the Ahrar al-Sham group mentioned here–yeah, they’re actually quite extreme. For instance, they also believe in the Salafi version of Islam (i.e. the same sect of Islam as Al-Qaeda and ISIS), and they have openly worked with Al-Qaeda in Syria in the past. They also aren’t big fans of Shiites or democracy, and they want to impose pure Islamic law. According to this thorough analysis at the Middle East Eye, Ahrar al-Sham shares most of the same goals as ISIS and Al-Qaeda; they just disagree on tactics. Thus, it should go without saying that they don’t fit any reasonable definition of moderate.
As a more general consideration, if you’re worried that your friends are going to be considered terrorists, you might want to consider getting new friends. Should we really be splitting hairs here? Of course it’s true that governments are usually very eager to accuse innocent people of terrorism because it serves their interests (usually, because they can claim an attack was thwarted by their heroism). But in this case, the incentives are reversed. The US is on the side of maybe-terrorists and thus they have an incentive to insist on a very lenient vetting process. Otherwise, consider how bad would it look if none of the opposition passed the non-terrorist test, and the Assad regime was left negotiating a ceasefire all by itself. Obviously, the US is not going to let that happen. They can’t let the Syrian government narrative that it’s fighting against terrorism be proven correct, regardless of what the facts may be.
And while I have not seen the US publicly comment on whether it supports including individual groups, the PR incentives outlined above will prove a significant obstacle for this process to overcome.
The second major hurdle is the question of Bashar Al-Assad. All sides agree in principle that Assad can probably stay to help manage the transition that ultimately culminates in free elections. The Western nations are insisting that Assad should not be allowed to participate in those elections. Russia and Iran, on the other hand, are suggesting that free elections should really be free elections, including the possibility of Assad being a candidate. Although it is not actually unique, this does seem to be an extraordinary situation on its face. Here we have the storied authoritarian regime of Russia and the theocracy of Iran advocating for truly free and fair elections, while the West wants to dictate some of the terms.
And of course, it may be tempting to note that Assad is Russia’s and Iran’s ally, and that’s why they’re taking this stance. That may be the case. But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s the right decision. If you want the free elections to have legitimacy, you can’t impose preconditions on it saying the people can’t vote for the incumbent. And it doesn’t matter if he’s a horrible bastard and a war criminal. Free elections mean free elections, and the Syrian people should be allowed to choose for themselves.
As Americans, we may be used to the idea that our government can dictate electoral conditions to other countries. But the absurdity of this cannot be understated. Imagine if Russia or the UN came in and said we couldn’t vote for George W. Bush in 2004 because he had violated the American people’s rights (the PATRIOT Act), tortured people (which had happened), and committed war crimes (namely, launching an aggressive war against Iraq). And I realize the analogy between Bush and Assad is imperfect, but the thought experiment is still a useful one. No American would tolerate that–probably not even the Democrats who hated Bush the most. And similarly, we cannot expect Syrians to accept us further meddling in their future, especially after everything we’ve already done in that region.
These two issues are going to be a challenge for the Syrian peace process to overcome. The US and its Western allies appear willing to seat questionable opposition groups at the negotiating table and are trying to ban Assad from the ultimate elections. And it must be recognized that both of these decisions are for domestic politics. We said the rebels are moderate and that Assad must go, and now we’re trying to will these statements into existence. But as we jostle for a hollow PR victory against Russia and Iran, one thing is certain: the Syrian people will continue to lose.