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World & Nation

Why a new opposition road map isn’t the breakthrough negotiators are seeking in Syria

Riad Hijab
Syrian opposition negotiator Riyad Hijab speaks at the launch of a road map to a negotiated solution to the five-year war.
(Chris J. Ratcliffe / AFP/Getty Images)

In most parts of the world, the unveiling of proposals for a negotiated solution to a ruinous civil war might be viewed as progress. Not so when it comes to Syria.

Recent battlefield successes have left President Bashar Assad little incentive to consider the road map to a political transition presented at a meeting in London this week by the High Negotiations Committee, the main group representing opposition factions at stalled talks mediated by the United Nations.

Assad has maintained during more than five years of fighting that he won’t give in to U.S.-backed demands that he step down, which are included in the road map  —  and he has the support of Russia, Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. 

In an interview with the BBC in Damascus on Wednesday, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, dismissed the suggestion that Assad might now agree to surrender power to a transitional government after a six-month negotiating period as “crazy” and “unbelievable.”

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Without an agreement between the U.S. and Russia on ways to end fighting across Syria that has killed more than 250,000 people, a resumption of political negotiations is unlikely. Those talks have stalemated, with U.S. officials accusing Russia of backtracking on some aspects of a deal that would effectively ground Syria’s air force and have the two powers coordinating targets for an air campaign against terrorist groups.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry would meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva on Thursday and Friday, after the two spoke about outstanding issues by phone Wednesday. 

But no such meeting took place Thursday. U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner would not commit to any dates until “we’ve reached a point where we believe a meeting would be useful.”  

Analysts said the opposition bloc’s plan might have more to do with seizing the moral high ground and papering over the disarray in rebel ranks than with coming up with viable options to end the war.

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“The narrative about the Syrian opposition in the last year or so is that these are gangs of jihadists who would be even worse for Syria than if the regime continues,” said Mouin Rabbani, a former adviser to the U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura. “By doing this, they’re trying to show they’re enlightened and inclusive.”

Even if the government were to reach agreement with the High Negotiations Committee, there are dozens of factions arrayed against Assad, each with its own shifting agenda, and the group does not speak for all of them.

“A diplomatic deal becomes realistic when you have fixed players that have the power to concede and enforce compliance. This basic prerequisite hasn’t been met,” said Ramzy Mardini, a nonresident scholar at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. 

“There are armed groups that are excluded from the framework, and the ones included may split, defect or oscillate between cooperation and conflict, depending on the changing circumstances on the ground.” 

What does the opposition plan entail?

The plan, the most detailed yet from the Saudi Arabian-backed opposition bloc, is broadly in line with proposals made by the United States and other Western allies.

A temporary cease-fire would be declared, accompanied by six months of negotiations with Assad’s government. During this period, both sides would lift sieges, allow unrestricted humanitarian access and the return of displaced people to their homes, and release detainees.

The goal would be to reach agreement on basic principles of a political transition, at which point Assad would turn over the reins of government to a transitional body that is representative of all Syrians. This body would run Syria for 18 months, overseeing the drafting of a new constitution and organizing elections supervised by the U.N.

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Though the plan requires the departure of officials who “committed heinous crimes against the Syrian  people,” opposition members say they aren’t seeking revenge against all members of the government.

The plan emphasizes the need for inclusive and nonsectarian leadership. It also offers Kurdish fighters, who have been a key ally in the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State extremists, a measure of autonomy and recognition of their ethnic, linguistic and cultural rights. But it does not include full independence for Syrian Kurds, as advocated by some factions.

How has the plan been received?

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who hosted the meeting Wednesday at which opposition negotiators laid out their proposals to foreign ministers, said there was “still a chance that this vision can be made to work.”

“If the Russians and Americans can together create a cease-fire, then the talks can restart in Geneva with the difference, perhaps, that all sides will by then have seen at least the scaffolding of a post-Assad Syria,” Johnson wrote in the Times newspaper of London.

Johnson’s column angered Syria’s Foreign Ministry, which said his remarks demonstrate the British government’s involvement in “aggression” against Syria and the country’s “responsibility for the shedding of Syrian blood and the strengthening of the danger of terrorism.”

Britain is a member of the U.S.-led coalition carrying out airstrikes in Syria and has backed calls for Assad to step down.

“Johnson’s remarks show his complete separation from reality and his being unaware that the time of the [British] mandate has gone, never to return,” the Syrian Foreign Ministry said in statements carried by state-run media Thursday. “Victory and the future will be for the free peoples and not faded empires forgotten by time and history.

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Speaking at Wednesday’s meeting, the chief Syrian opposition negotiator cautioned that world powers cannot decide Syria’s fate alone. With President Obama nearing the end of his term, there is concern among some opposition members that the U.S. administration might rush to secure a deal with Russia.

“If what the Russians and the Americans agree upon is very much different from what the Syrians aspire to, then we shall not accept it,” said Riyad Hijab, who defected to the opposition in 2012, after serving as prime minister.

In Washington, Toner said it was up to the Syrian parties to negotiate a transition. “What we’re trying to do, and what we’re engaged in right now with regard to Russia, is try to set the conditions so that that political process can take place in Geneva and lead to, we hope, a resolution to the conflict,” he told reporters.

Are opposition groups united behind the plan?

At least one major faction, the Front for the Conquest of Syria, the group formerly known as Al Nusra Front, rejected the committee’s blueprint out of hand.

“People rejected by every faction of society have no right to make decisions on their behalf from conference halls in London,” tweeted a group spokesman, Mostafa Mahamed, also known by the nom de guerre Abu Sulayman Muhajir.

Although the front recently announced that it had severed ties with Al Qaeda, the U.S. still considers it an affiliate and says it won’t be included in any cessation of hostilities. But many in the Syrian opposition, including factions that receive military aid from the U.S. and regional powers, see it as an effective battlefield partner and often act in concert with its fighters. 

Times staff writer Zavis reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Bulos from Beirut.

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Twitter: @alexzavis


UPDATES:

6:40 p.m.: This article has been updated with a State Department spokesman refusing to commit to any dates for a meeting between Secretary of State John F. Kerry and his Russian counterpart.

This article was originally published at 1 p.m.


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