Syrian Rebels Hold U.S. and Russia in Near-equal Disdain After Kerry's 'Betrayal'

The Syrian opposition has already agreed to negotiate with the regime, but they couldn't participate in talks while their homes were being bombed.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Turkey-Syria border
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A man drives past damaged buildings in Harasta, Syria, Feb. 10, 2016.
A man drives past damaged buildings in Harasta, Syria, Feb. 10, 2016.Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Turkey-Syria border

TURKISH-SYRIAN BORDER – Even six days after the confrontation with the U.S. secretary of state, the Syrian human rights activist still puffs up with rage when he remembers the incident.

He was part of a group of activists attending a conference of donor states in London to raise funds for Syrian refugees. At the opening ceremony of the conference, they approached Secretary of State John Kerry, who had just arrived in London following the unsuccessful attempt in Geneva the previous day to achieve a cease-fire in Syria.

"We told him that he wasn't doing enough to defend civilians in Syria," said the activist, who asked to remain anonymous. "He looked angry about the failure in Geneva and replied, 'Don't blame me, blame your opposition.'"

The participants in the Geneva talks dispersed after the representatives of Syrian opposition groups and rebels refused to enter the conference room after hearing that Russian jets had begun attacking civilian targets in Aleppo and its surrounding region, in an effort to close the siege on the city.

"We felt that he was blaming the opposition for the bombs falling on Aleppo and not the Russians who were doing the bombing," the activist said. "We told him that we weren't politicians, but human rights workers representing the residents of Aleppo."

Someone said that the residents of Aleppo had prayed for the talks in Geneva to succeed as soon as possible and that the bombing would stop.

"'It won't stop," Kerry said. "Now they will bomb for three months until the opposition is decimated."

At that point, things got heated between Kerry and the activists. One of them asked. "What about the civilians who are under siege?"

Kerry responded: "We'll parachute them supplies." (Until now there has been no sign or information of any American preparations to do that.)

One of the activists shouted, "Are you not going to do anything to save them?" to which Kerry replied: "What do you want? That we start a war with Russia?"

At that point, the members of Kerry's entourage moved quickly to separate the secretary and the activists. "Don't worry, we'll bring peace to Syria," Kerry said before he left.

That exchange was covered last weekend in the Arab media, It took two days for Kerry's spokesman and other American diplomats to deny the reports. But there were many witnesses to the exchange.

Officially, the Americans accused the Russians of causing the collapse of the Geneva talks with their bombing, but Kerry remains undaunted and intends to continue the diplomatic process.

This week, back in his office in Turkey, not far from the Syrian border, the activist said that "despite the public statements, Kerry's behavior toward us indicates that he had already agreed with (Russian Foreign Minister Sergey) Lavrov. Then the Syrian opposition had the cheek to protest that their families were being bombed, which destroyed his diplomatic utopia."

Assad Achi, an opposition activist and head of the Syria Our Home organization, which is developing an aid program for Syrian civilians in the battle zone, also participated in the meetings in Geneva and London. He said this week that "in effect, the opposition has already agreed to negotiate with the regime, despite all our reservations."

"But if the delegates to the talks had entered the conference room in Geneva while civilians were being bombed at home, they would have lost all legitimacy among the Syrian people."

According to people from the opposition, the fact that the Russians increased the rate of their attacks considerably during the opening of the talks (they say that there were 870 aerial attacks in the Aleppo area in the three days prior to the talks,) was a blatant attempt to have them portrayed as traitors.

"It's good that they went to Geneva and showed willingness to talk," Achi said, "but it's also good that they refused to enter the room."

Despite the West's official support for the Syrian opposition and the comparatively "moderate" rebel organizations, there are a range of suspicions and differences of opinion between them, particularly with the Obama administration.

The Americans continue to support some of the rebel organizations with deliveries of supplies and weapons (through Turkey and Jordan,) but they refuse to provide shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, out of concern that they will fall into the hands of jihadist organizations and turned against Western planes in the future. They even pressured Saudi Arabia to desist from providing such weapons.

"It's the only thing preventing us from fighting and defending ourselves," a senior commander of the Al-Sham Front said on Wednesday. The front is one of the largest rebel forces fighting in Aleppo.

"Our people are already battle veterans and are able to defeat the Shi'ite militias the regime has deployed against us. But we have no answer to Russian air attacks."

The opposition is outraged at American attempts to define rebels groups as "moderates" or "radicals," who don't receive any aid and are not included in the talks. "If they continue to differentiate between rebel organizations and push them into a corner, eventually they will all be Jabhat al-Nusra (a rebel group identified with Al-Qaida) because what will they have to lose?" said the commander.

Another disagreement concerns the provision of aid to Syrian civilians. Donor countries agreed in London to budget $10.7 billion for the Syrian people, but it was not decided how the money would be divided.

The Turkish, Jordanian and Lebanese governments are demanding that the money go to them, as those who have accepted millions of Syrian refugees into their countries. The European Union supports their claim, particularly that of Turkey, in the hope that it will dry up the flow of refugees from Turkey to Europe.

The opposition organizations, while interested in support for the refugees who have fled, the number of which could be as high as seven million – one-third of the entire Syrian population, maintain that the civilians who remain in Syria in rebel-held territory cannot be ignored.

Those Syrian civilians, they say, are struggling to hold onto their land and their fight is no less important than the fight of those opposing the regime with weapons.

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