World Powers Convene in Vienna, Hoping the Syrians Will Play Ball

Participants in Austria are hoping to choose representatives of the Syrian opposition. However, even if by some miracle agreement is achieved, it is far from certain the militias fighting on the ground will take any notice.

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A pro-government fighter walks down a road in the Syrian town of Arbid on the outskirts of the Kuweires military airbase, November 12, 2015
LONG ROAD AHEAD: A pro-government fighter walks down a road in the Syrian town of Arbid on the outskirts of the Kuweires military airbase, November 12, 2015.Credit: AFP

Only $200 a year – that’s the amount a Syrian student will have to pay for studies at a recently opened university near Aleppo. It will have 19 faculties, as well as 10 research institutes, and aspires to international recognition for the 3,000 or so students who will register for the first year.

This is an unusual university: It was established by the Syrian opposition in an area under rebel control, and is intended to serve mainly students in the “liberated” parts of the country. However, students who have not completed their studies at government universities will also be able to enroll there.

This is good news for those who had lost all hope of an academic future in Syria; now their fate could differ from the 400,000 refugee children who are not attending school in Turkey, or the hundreds of thousands of young Syrians flocking to educational institutions in Lebanon and Jordan.

But while students in the Aleppo Governorate are busy trying to understand the acceptance prerequisites for the new university, battles are still raging on the other side of the region between rebels and the Syrian army, which is being aided by the Russian Air Force.

Last week, the army chalked up an impressive achievement when it succeeded in reoccupying the Kuweires military air base, which Islamic State had taken in 2013 and since then held hundreds of soldiers and officers under siege.

However, any description of the battle that only cites Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army and the rebel militias is not entirely accurate. Last week, Aleppo Governorate – which is redivided daily among ISIS, the rebel militias and the Syrian army – awaited the first visit to the battle zone by representatives of the temporary opposition government headed by Ahmad Tu’mah. However, the high-ranking delegation headed by Tu’mah himself, which intended to convene the heads of the rebel militias in order to examine the possibility of uniting them into a single army, never made it to Aleppo – and not because of the Syrian army or Islamic State. In fact, it barely made it into Syria, after being stopped on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey by fighters from the Shamiya Front, which controls the crossing point. They refused to let the delegation advance, on the grounds that “the visit was not coordinated with the front’s headquarters.”

The Shamiya Front consists of a conglomeration of militias and fragments of organizations that together constitute the largest rebel force on the northern front. Control of the border crossing affords it tremendous economic advantages. Thus, the attempt to create a single army and blend other militias into it means a threat to the exclusivity of its control of funding and ways to cross the border. Moreover, rebel forces on the ground do not recognize the authority of the temporary government that is considered – correctly, to a large degree – a corrupt, fragmented organization that has no influence on diplomatic moves.

The border incident is just one example of the tremendous difficulties facing any diplomatic solution in Syria. These have led German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to remark that “there is no reason for optimism” ahead of Saturday’s talks in Vienna – the second in recent weeks. The senior representatives of some 20 countries intend to decide on the representatives of the Syrian opposition, who will then be invited to participate in the diplomatic process that it is hoped will lead to the establishment of a new temporary Syrian regime and prepare the country for elections.

Like the previous meeting last month, no representatives of the opposition, rebels or Syrian regime were invited. The working assumption, as yet ungrounded, is that everything agreed by the conference participants – and mainly the United States, Russia, Iran (whose participation is still not definite) and Saudi Arabia – could be imposed upon the fighters on the ground. Last Tuesday, Reuters reported details of the so-called “Russian plan,” whereby a temporary government will serve for 18 months, during which time a constitutional reform process, followed by early presidential elections, will be implemented. The current regime would continue to be a partner in the running of the country for this period – as agreed in the joint declaration summarizing last month’s Vienna conference. In the meantime, Russia has denied the existence of any such plan.

In advance of Saturday’s conference, the sides were asked to present their lists of rebel and opposition representatives. From these, about 25 will be chosen to form the core of the representation for both the opposition and regime. This group will split into two main committees that will conduct discussions over the arrangement in Syria: One will deal with political reform, the other with security issues. According to reports in the Russian media, Moscow has proposed, among others, Khaled Khoja – who heads the coalition of opposition movements – and his predecessors Moaz al-Khatib, Ahmad Jarba and Hadi al-Bahra, along with Michel Kilo and Aref Dalila, who are supposed to represent the intellectual streams opposed to the Assad regime.

However, the main source of dissension among conference participants is expected to be the definition of organizations and militias as terror groups, since these will not be able to join the diplomatic process and will face military targeting. Iran and Russia are demanding not only that the Nusra Front be excluded from the process, but also Ahrar al-Sham and other extremist militias active in the Latakia Governorate.

Turkey has demands of its own, mainly concerning Kurdish militias active in northern Syria that, according to Ankara, support or collaborate with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it defines as a terror organization. The United States, however, attributes great importance to the Kurdish militias. In recent months, it has helped establish a militia called the Syrian Democratic Forces consisting of 12 smaller militias, among them Kurdish fighters alongside members of Arab tribes and Assyrian Syriac Christians. The establishment of a combined militia like this will enable the U.S. administration to fund and arm the fighters without angering Turkey too much. Saudi Arabia, too, has a list of militias it supports and it will oppose including them on the terror organization blacklist.

Even if by some miracle the sides come to an agreement on the list of terror organizations that must be distinguished from the “kosher” militias, there is no certainty that the fighters on the ground will adopt the definitions of the statesmen in Vienna. So, for example, the Free Syrian Army collaborates with the Nusra Front in Daraa Governorate. Among the Jaish al-Fatah militia active in the area around Idlib, there are extremist factions that Russia sees as terror organizations. It’s doubtful whether the commanders of the large militias will agree to divest themselves of their “terrorist” partners, merely to participate in a diplomatic process that has a vague framework and does not guarantee the removal of Assad.

The assessment is that it will take months, rather than weeks, for the discussions to yield agreements that will enable them to move onto the next stage: the adding of Syrian representatives – on behalf of both rebels and the regime – to the process of establishing the temporary government. During this period, all sides will try to establish facts on the ground in order to influence the discussions.

The Russians and Americans (who are sending more flight squadrons to the Turkish military air base at Incirlik) are expected to step up their aerial attacks, and Assad’s army will try to take control of other areas in the Aleppo region following its achievement at the Kuweires military air base. The rebels will try to attack the center of Latakia, an Alawite stronghold that’s vital to the regime. Last week, 23 people were killed there and another 60 hurt in bombardments. In Daraa Governorate, which has been bombed by Russian planes, and the rural area of Idlib, there are battles being waged between regime forces and joint forces of the Free Syrian Army and Nusra Front. However, these are simply tactical battles that cannot yield an overall victory: Presence is the name of the game.

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