Syrian dialogue: appearance over substance?

Sharif Nashashibi
Sharif Nashashibi
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Syrian National Coalition leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib has been heavily criticized from within his own opposition ranks for his surprise offer of dialogue with the regime of Bashar Assad. Among them is the Syrian National Council - the largest component of the Coalition - which reiterated its “rejection of any dialogue” with the regime.

“Lots of friendly countries, or those who claim friendship for the Syrian people, were waiting for this exact kind of initiative to justify their failure to deliver on military support for the revolt and the protection of civilians,” said senior Coalition member Burhan Ghalioun.

Thirty of its 70 members have demanded an emergency meeting. That Khatib did not convene such a meeting before his announcement is a serious mistake, as is the fact that he will not brief the politburo - the Coalition’s highest decision-making body - until Feb. 14. This demonstrates a lack of consultation that could prove deeply damaging to the unity of the diverse, recently-formed umbrella group.

Nonetheless, Khatib’s initiative deserves support, not just for its pragmatism, but also for its shrewdness. He told Al Arabiya that he felt “compelled” to make such a proposal because of “the Syrian humanitarian suffering,” adding: “Our people are dying, and we won’t allow that.” Syrians must solve the conflict themselves, because foreign powers lack the “vision” to do so, he said.

This shows compassion not just for those opposed to the regime, but for the suffering of all Syrians, more than 60,000 of whom have been killed and millions displaced, according to the United Nations. This is important in trying to achieve a sense of national unity that will be crucial in avoiding a further descent into civil war after Assad’s downfall.

It is also a reflection of the reality on the ground: that as the uprising grinds on into its third year - longer than most of its supporters expected - and although rebels are making slow but steady gains, there are no signs that the regime’s collapse is imminent.

In the meantime, “the country is breaking up before everyone’s eyes,” U.N. / Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said on Jan. 29 - the day before Khatib’s offer -adding that he had “no progress” to report in his efforts to establish talks on a political transition.

Khatib’s olive branch may also be borne out of the failure, or refusal, of the opposition’s foreign backers to provide the material aid needed and requested to significantly increase the pressure on the regime. For instance, the White House has rejected a plan - supported by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former CIA chief David Petraeus - to arm and train vetted rebel groups.

“There’s too much killing and there’s too much violence, and we obviously want to try to find a way forward,” said Clinton’s successor John Kerry, adding: “It’s a very complicated and very dangerous situation. We’re taking a look at what steps, if any, diplomatic particularly, might be able to be taken in an effort to reduce that violence and deal with that situation.”

This is a strikingly different tone compared with his statement in May 2012 - when he was Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman - that the United States needed to do more to protect Syrian civilians, including considering the establishment of safe zones inside the country, and arming the opposition.

With the foreign backers of both sides calling for a negotiated solution, Khatib may be wary of alienating the governments and organizations that recognize and support his Coalition, by avoiding being seen as inflexible. This might also explain his recent meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, after having initially rejected an invitation from Moscow.

This conciliatory tone has borne fruit, with backing from the principal foreign powers involved in the conflict. If the Syrian regime is interested in peace, “it should sit down and talk now” with the Coalition, said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, adding: “We’d strongly support Khatib in that call.”

The 56-member Organization of the Islamic Conference has backed the initiative, as has the Arab League, whose Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi has offered to play a role in any negotiations for a democratic transition, and expressed hope that “the Syrian government would respond positively to the proposal.”

Khatib’s offer is “the most promising thing we’ve heard on Syria recently,” said Jeffrey Feltman, U.N. under-secretary-general for political affairs. “Perhaps there is now a slight opening, perhaps that locked door to negotiations is starting to be unlocked.” Khatib “does represent a significant and important part of the opposition ... This is an opportunity worth pursuing.”

Even Russia and Iran, Syria’s main allies, have responded positively. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who met with Khatib, described the initiative as “a good step forward,” adding that he was ready to talk again with the opposition, and wanted to be “part of the solution.”

In defending his meeting with Salehi, Khatib said he expressed “very clearly the outrage of the Syrian people towards the way Iran has dealt with the crisis.” However, real-politik also seemed to be at play. “Regrettably, it’s the Iranians who call the shots in Syria” he said, adding that he wants to avoid “a regional Sunni-Shiite conflict.”

Lavrov said after his meeting with Khatib that Russia wants to maintain “regular contact” with the opposition, describing the latter’s proposal as “a very important step.” The meeting reportedly led to an invitation to visit Moscow. This comes amid talks between Lavrov and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who said Washington and Moscow should put aside their differences over Syria and cooperate.

Khatib’s call for dialogue effectively means the abandonment of his Coalition’s policy of refusing to talk with the regime unless Assad steps down first. However, this should not be viewed as a sign of weakness. Khatib has made clear that talks must lead to the removal of the dictator. This stance is in line with the U.N. / Arab League envoy’s belief that “Assad should have no role in the transition.”

Khatib said he conveyed this message in his meetings with the Russian and Iranian foreign ministers. “The revolution will continue, but we remain open to political negotiation for the departure of the regime,” he said. While the opposition leader says he is “ready for direct discussions with representatives of the Syrian regime,” this does not include Assad himself.

Instead, Khatib has in mind those whose hands are not “stained with blood,” specifically Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa, because he is “a sincere man who truly wants to get Syria out of this debacle.” Sharaa said in December that neither the regime nor the rebels could win a decisive victory, quite a departure from the strident defiance expressed by Assad and other officials.

As such, Khatib has chosen the regime member perhaps most amenable to the kind of talks he is offering. It may also be a ploy to sow division within the regime, between hardliners and those who want a negotiated way out, but are afraid to say so publicly. Sharaa himself was the subject of rumours last year that he had defected.

Likewise, one of the aims of Khatib’s talks with the Russians and Iranians may be to entice them away from Assad, by giving them hope that their strategic interests in Syria will not necessarily disappear with their ally’s departure.

Just days before Khatib’s meeting with Lavrov, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev said Assad had made a “grave, perhaps fatal error” in not reaching out to the opposition, “which was ready to sit at the negotiating table with him.” Medvedev added: “It seems to me that his chances of staying [in power] are shrinking day by day.”

This follows recent statements by President Vladimir Putin, Lavrov, and his deputy Mikhail Bogdanov, indicating the possibility of a nuanced shift in Russia’s hitherto unflinching support for Assad.

Khatib has also demanded the release of 160,000 prisoners, including all female detainees - citing “horrific reports about the torture of women” - as well as exiles’ passports being renewed in embassies. He has urged the regime to act “rationally” and “be reasonable, just for once, and comprehend the need to end the suffering of the people” by accepting his offer “to negotiate their departure.”

However, Khatib most likely knew in advance of his announcement that Assad, having behaved neither rationally nor reasonably since the revolution began, would never accept his conditions. That may well have been the point: to prove to the world that the regime is the belligerent party.

Last month, the Syrian dictator reportedly ruled out dialogue with Khatib’s coalition. Furthermore, the semi-official al-Watan newspaper said in an editorial that the opposition leader is not an acceptable negotiator, adding that the offer is too late, and that “the ball is not in the Syrian state’s hands, as Khatib said.”

On Feb. 9, Information Minister Omrane al-Zohbi welcomed “any Syrian who wants to have dialogue with us.” He said the regime’s offer “excludes no one,” but “there must be no preconditions.” However, Zohbi contradicted himself by including a major precondition, extending the invitation to “all armed fighters who lay down their weapons.” This, as the regime knows, is a non-starter for the rebels.

And so the diplomatic dance goes on, with lip service being paid to the need for dialogue, in the apparent belief that appearance is more important than substance. All the while, the suffering of Syrians continues, and will likely do so for some time to come.

Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Center, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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