Challenges Face Upcoming Syria Negotiations

By Derek Bisaccio, Eurasia Analyst, Forecast International.

On December 18, the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) – composed of top players with stakes in the Syrian conflict – will meet in New York City to discuss the war and efforts at peace negotiations. They are due to formally codify the framework reached in Vienna last month, which, among other provisions, “agreed on the need to convene Syrian government and opposition representatives in formal negotiations under UN auspices, as soon as possible, with a target date of January 1.”[i]

Both the United States and Russia have agreed that to deal with terrorist organizations in Syria, such as the Islamic State group or al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra, there needs to be a de-escalation of the fighting in the country.[ii] To do that, the United States and Russia, along with other important regional and international countries, are seeking to prod Syria’s warring parties into meeting in January.

Getting the myriad parties – and getting the right ones among the myriad parties – to meet is tricky. The January 1 target date was intended to convey a sense of urgency to the negotiations. For the opposition, the date has spurred a significant amount of action, with three separate conferences organized as efforts to promote unity.

Of the three conferences, the one in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, stands out, for it was composed of a broad range of representatives of both the political opposition and, more importantly, major rebel factions on the ground in Syria. Previous diplomatic efforts were shunned by the major rebel players,[iii] but the Riyadh meeting produced a joint statement that agrees to a negotiating team that includes rebel militias. The opposition delegation includes representatives of “Free Syrian Army” groups in the north, the Southern Front, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, and Jaysh al-Islam.

The unity of the rebel negotiating team is fragile, as there is deep division between the various representatives, particularly between those representing armed groups and those of the political opposition. The latter are generally viewed as expatriates not speaking for any of the militias on the ground, or pawns of the Syrian government. While the opposition contains some of the most important armed opposition factions, it does not have any representatives from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia that holds broad swathes of northern Syria.

As indicated by the fanfare associated with Ahrar al-Sham’s brief departure of the Riyadh talks[iv] (it later returned), Ahrar al-Sham potentially holds the power to torpedo discussions. Although the militia’s strength is often overemphasized, and admittedly its actions can be constrained by its foreign backers, the group has put a significant amount of credibility on the line by agreeing to attend talks with the Syrian government. Should it choose to leave because it does not view the negotiations as productive (for whatever reason), other representatives may be inspired to follow suit.

Negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition delegation will be tense, primarily as, despite their differences, the rebels are unequivocally opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad staying in power. They see his departure as a prerequisite for any ceasefire agreement.[v] Assad, meanwhile, told EFE in an exclusive interview released on December 11 that “[he] never thought about leaving Syria under any circumstances, in any situation.”[vi]

The long-standing divide over Assad’s future continues to dog all peace efforts. During previous meetings between the Syrian government and opposition representatives, no conclusive decision was reached on Assad’s fate. Reaching consensus now will be especially difficult, as the rebels still feel as though they have momentum from the sweeping victories in the first half of the year, while Assad’s position has grown more secure thanks to the backing of Russia and Iran, as well as Iraqi militias and Hezbollah.[vii]

If previous attempts at ceasefires, through either broad or localized efforts, are any indication, getting the fighting to stop will not be easy. A few local ceasefires that have been implemented have seen recurring breaches, such as in the al-Qadam and al-Asali districts of Damascus.[viii] Even barring the difficulty of implementing on the ground any agreements reached at the upcoming or subsequent negotiation sessions, on the sidelines, other actors, namely Jabhat al-Nusra, have the power to play the role of spoiler.

Despite its allegiance to al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra is generally accepted among the armed opposition groups for its prowess on the battlefield against the Syrian Army. Its fighters and headquarters are interspersed among those of the revolution. In the event of a (quite unlikely) ceasefire, Jabhat al-Nusra could provoke the Syrian Army by continuing military operations. If the Syrian Army chose to respond to the provocations, it would almost inevitably hit more armed parties than just Jabhat al-Nusra, given the complexity of rebel-held territory, particularly in the country’s north, even if it really intended to hit just Jabhat al-Nusra.

Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader, Abu Muhammed al-Jolani, recently called the Riyadh conference “treason” in an interview with foreign media,[ix] so it is quite likely the group harbors similar feelings about peace negotiations with the government. As previously noted, the U.S. and Russia, among other countries, view a de-escalation of the fighting in Syria as the best way to move forward with destroying terrorist groups. Acutely aware of that, Jabhat al-Nusra would certainly like to see the fighting continue, hence Jolani’s fierce arguments in his interview that the implementation of truces is the first step to surrendering to the Syrian government.

The world leaders meeting for the ISSG conference in New York likely are under no impression that the forthcoming peace talks will realistically create any sweeping resolution to the conflict. But despite the many obstacles to peace, jump-starting dialogue remains the best option for dealing with the war. At this point, no party or coalition of parties has the military strength to defeat the other entirely, so finding even small points of agreement is better than the current status quo.

[i] United Nations Department of Political Affairs, “Statement of the International Syria Support Group,” November 14, 2015.

[ii] Dave Clark, “US, Russia agree to push ahead with Syria talks,” Yahoo News, December 15, 2015.

[iii] Aron Lund, “Rebels Call Geneva Talks ‘Treason,'” October 28, 2013.

[iv] Sylvia Westall and Andrew Heavens, “Syria armed group Ahrar al-Sham quits Riyadh conference,” Reuters, December 10, 2015.

[v] Diana Al Rifai, “Syrian opposition: No ceasefire unless Assad goes,” Al Jazeera, December 16, 2015.

[vi] Jose Antonio Vera and Jose Manuel Sanz, “Assad Interview Full Transcript,” EFE, December 11, 2015.

[vii] A number of banners and insignias of Iraqi militias have been spotted in Syria, particularly in the southern Aleppo battlefield. A few of the involved Iraqi militias are Kataib Hezbollah, Kataib Imam Ali, and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba.

[viii] Syria Direct, “A truce, and mortars, for two south Damascus neighborhoods,” November 13, 2014.

[ix] Orient News, “For the first time on Orient News, Interview with Jabhat al-Nusra Leader Abu Muhammed al-Jolani,” December 12, 2015.

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