It’s hard to count the number of times that the Syrians have held their breath in anticipation of some agreement — each time, in vain. So it was again yesterday in London at the “Friends of Syria” meeting — an odd name for a conference whose participants don’t necessarily support the same Syria. But at the venue another proposal was raised for a diplomatic solution to the civil war that has been raging for nearly five-and-a-half years.
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It was a handsome proposal. It begins with a six-month negotiating period during which some 30 opposition groups would agree to leave President Bashar Assad in office. During this period an effort would be made to set up a transitional administration that would not include Assad; this administration would have 18 months to write a new constitution, draw up election regulations, and lay the groundwork for elections based on the new constitution.
In the third stage, power would be transferred to the elected government which would be “democratic and representative, give women at least 30 percent of the decision-making positions and give proper representation to every minority and ethnic group,” as stated in the 25-page proposal. During the negotiating period there would be a cease-fire and once the transitional administration is set up all sides would lay down their weapons permanently.
This is a revised version of a proposal presented and rejected in the past, primarily over disagreements concerning what role Assad would play. Now that the opposition groups have agreed to let Assad remain during the first six months, the proposal should get broader support.
Nevertheless, this declaration is far from being implementable. Not all the opposition factions have adopted it and the rebel forces in the field have yet to express their opinions. Those making the proposal are members of the opposition that arose under Saudi Arabian auspices and not the heads of the Coalition of Opposition Groups. Not only are these two groups in dispute, so are their sponsors. While one group is supported by Saudi Arabia, the other is supported by Turkey, and Iran is liable to reject any proposal made by any group backed by the Saudis.
But even if the proposal is adopted by all the opposition factions, it still isn’t clear whether the militias that are considered terror groups, like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the former Nusra Front), which deploys key forces in the battle against the Islamic State, or the Kurdish militias that Turkey is attacking, will participate in the six-month negotiations.
Herein lies part of the disagreement between Washington and Moscow that still hasn’t been resolved, not even during the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama. Putin made it clear that “It’s still too early to talk about a framework agreement,” but that he believes such an agreement would be reached. The United States, meanwhile, isn’t explaining what points still remain in dispute, but Arab commentators say that the siege on Aleppo and control over it are a substantial part of the disagreement. Russia wants achievements in Aleppo for the Assad government, to generate a military turning point that would make it clear to the rebels that it pays to surrender, while the United States wants the government attacks on Aleppo to stop, for a cease-fire to be declared, and only then to discuss Aleppo as part of the negotiating process.
It turns out then that control of Aleppo is not just a tactical issue. It holds the key to a diplomatic solution, one that will impact on Russia’s position during the negotiations. On the other hand, rebel forces can use any gains they make in the city as leverage at the negotiating table. This means that any proposal for a diplomatic solution is subject to developments in Aleppo.
Turkey inserted itself into this clash when it created new facts on the ground by capturing a 90-kilometer strip along the Syrian border, with plans to expand its control to the outskirts of Aleppo. Turkey is once again demanding that a buffer zone be set up within Syria to separate the Kurdish forces and enable refugees living in Turkey to pass into Syria. The weak protests by Russia and Iran against the Turkish invasion indicate that both countries believe that any agreement will have to deal with the Kurdish question in a manner that satisfies Turkey and that Turkey doesn’t plan to stay in Syria for very long.
But Turkey doesn’t plan to withdraw just yet, and to solidify the legitimacy of its invasion President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he is ready to join the United States assault on Raqqa, the Islamic State capital, making reliance on Kurdish forces unnecessary. Turkey’s calculations, however, may backfire with the consolidation of local forces with the Kurdish minority and other ethnic groups, who this week established the Syrian National Opposition. Their goal: to fight the Turks by conducting a war of attrition against them.
All these warring factions hope to achieve a cease-fire by the Id ah-Adha holiday, which begins next Monday. But if the past is anything to go by, Muslim holidays haven’t been enough of an incentive to stop the Syrian bloodbath until now.