Preparing for Geneva II: Strategies of Assad, Iran, & the Opposition / By *Atef al-Souri is a pseudonym used by the author for security reasons.
In advance of the upcoming Geneva conference, the Syrian regime has attempted to force the West to deal with it as a power that holds the key to urgent issues, despite it being an illegitimate authority.
Assad projects himself as being the sole solution to countering Islamic terrorism, protecting Israel’s borders, as well as maintaining the stability of neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Damascus has also used its strong ties with Iran for this purpose, regarding the suffering of Syria’s people as being insignificant in the scheme of its international interests. The regime will maintain its current course of action on the international scene and in the upcoming Geneva conference, presenting itself as being open to dialogue, while in reality it seeks to completely destroy the political opposition. As for the opposition, it should use the Geneva talks as a framework through which it can gain popular legitimacy, and prove itself as an acceptable alternative for the West.
Assad’s regime will seek to send the following messages to the international community in order to imply that it cannot be substituted:
1) The opposition was not elected, thus it is illegitimate
2) The opposition is weak and divided in opinion and priorities
3) The opposition cannot rely on any military faction
4) The opposition does not have the administrative or financial experience to participate in any transitional government
5) There are criminal search warrants issued against members of the opposition
6) Members of the opposition are tied to the jihadi movements
Preparations for Geneva II
Participants of the Geneva conference are expected to discuss the transitional government, a cease-fire agreement, and transitional justice. Meanwhile, the issue of Assad staying in power is still on the table. The opposition must show relative flexibility so that it upholds the rights of the Syrian people while agreeing to certain measures conditionally as a display of good intention. For example, the opposition could condition a cease-fire to the release of regime prisoners, or the permission of aid organizations to provide medicine and food to civilians in Homs and Ghouta, as well as permission for international observers to enter prisons controlled by security forces. Therefore, observers in the international community would not be able to place the blame the opposition for failed negotiations due to irresponsible or unrealistic stances. The more that the opposition gains favor from the Syrian people, the more it will weaken Assad and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
The opposition must begin preparation for the conference by holding extensive meetings with both civilians and the armed opposition in Syria to inform themselves of the people’s priorities. It must also draft a statement that contains its negotiation goals in order to ensure that there is accordance between the people and the opposition. Finally, Syrian opposition leaders must meet with “Friends of Syria” countries before the conference to share its vision for the negotiations, and to understand the extent to which the international community can help (Saudi Arabia being the most important country).
The Role of Assad
Assad is expected to remain in power until the end of his current term, which corresponds with the amount of time the international community determined it will take to remove all of Syria’s chemical weapons. Assad’s main goal in this time period is to prove to the West that he is indispensable by showing his control over the government and the military in cooperating with United Nations committees overseeing the removal of chemical weapons. This, in addition to cooperation in other procedures, will assure the UN and other countries involved that there is still a cohesive country that continues to function in all sectors (administrative, political, military, security, and media).
In this phase of chemical weapons removal, Assad will do everything in his power to prove that the government is functioning and will follow through on its commitments. Meanwhile, he will continue to eliminate anyone who threatens his existence – including peaceful activists and intellects from both sides – even if they are his supporters. In addition to this, Assad will continue to weaken the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and all other moderate armed forces that seek a political solution to the crisis and do not have any Islamist or private agendas. Assad is currently assisting ISIS, perhaps inadvertently, by bombing FSA sites. He has supposedly also conspired with the Iraqi government in allowing more than 1500 al-Qaeda activists, experts, and veterans to escape from Iraqi prisons. According to media reports, many of these prisoners have fled to Syria, yet the Iraqi government still has not posted the names and pictures of those who have escaped.
According to Assad’s calculations, the international community will likely have to choose one of three outcomes: First, pressure Assad and his allies to ensure that the Geneva agreement is executed and that he leaves power. In this scenario, the international community would be permitted to support the transitional government in carrying out its different tasks, including maintaining the unity of Syrian territory, building an army and institutions, and, most importantly, fighting al-Qaeda.
Second, given the weakness of the opposition and a large expansion of ISIS and other Islamist groups, the international community may view Assad as the most capable in fighting al-Qaeda. Therefore, it may allow Assad to stay in power for an extended amount of time (this right exists in the Syrian constitution). Assad will likely use this period to remain in power, hoping that international interest shifts to a more important issue than Syria such as preparations for the 2016 U.S. elections. Third, there is the possibility that a sectarian war in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq could erupt. In Lebanon, the destabilization would threaten UN forces on the Israeli border in southern Lebanon (UNIFIL). Therefore, Assad would attempt to position himself – with the help of Hezbollah and Iran – as the only guarantee that these scenarios can be prevented.
The Role of Iran
The Syrian crisis has given Iran a new place to impose its religious and political influence in its quest for regional hegemony. In fact, in Syria, Iran is less interested in defending Assad than it is in trying to preserve and strengthen its influence.
The opposition should ask Iran to participate in the second Geneva conference under two conditions:
1) Completely recognize the outcome of the Geneva negotiations, including a transitional government.
2) Promise to stop funding and politically supporting all Shiite parties or groups currently operating in Syria.
If Iran agrees to the second condition, it will find itself in a difficult position of giving up on the regime and recognizing its role in sending Shiite fighters to Syria. However, if Iran refuses the second condition – which is more likely – it will isolate itself from any efforts of the international community to solve the Syrian crisis. On the other hand, if the opposition refuses to accept Iran’s participation in the Geneva conference, it would, in principal, give Iran a green light to continue its destructive policies in Syria.
Implications for Opposition Strategy
The Syrian opposition and its allies must take all of the points mentioned above into consideration while planning any transitional government, in addition to putting in place certain measures to make sure the above scenarios do not occur. Supporting countries should take steps for the long-term support of the opposition by providing the FSA with light weapons and by uniting all of the moderate militant groups under one umbrella. They must also help to incorporate dissident Syrian officers into the FSA’s formations, especially pilots, 60 of whom have defected from the regime. In addition to this, they must supply the opposition with experts from a variety of specializations, and reach an international agreement that guarantees stability in the region with the formation of a transitional government.
*Atef al-Souri is a pseudonym used by the author for security reasons.