On Eve Of Geneva Talks: Syrian Regime Strong Thanks To Support Of Russia; Opposition Divided, Weak & Bereft Of U.S. Backing

By: N. Mozes and M. Terdiman* – January 28, 2016Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.1223 – MEMRI

Introduction – On January 29, 2016, some two years after the failure of the Geneva II conference, another round of indirect talks will take place in Geneva between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which outlined a roadmap to solve the Syrian crisis.[1] According to the resolution, the talks were set to begin in early January 2016, but were postponed twice due to disagreements between the parties regarding the makeup of the opposition delegation.

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura stated that the agenda of the Geneva talks will address the new government, the new constitution, and elections, as outlined in UNSCR 2254, but stressed that the top items on the agenda will be a comprehensive ceasefire, eliminating the threat of ISIS, and ensuring humanitarian aid.[2] De Mistura tried to lower expectations and say that this is not Geneva III, but rather a round of talks that could lead to such a conference. He stated that he was aiming to have as much as the opposition represented as possible, including civil society organizations and women. He also said the intention was to start indirect talks on Friday, January 29, 2016, even if some participants aren’t there yet “due to a delay in obtaining visas or such matters.” According to him, talks will not be direct, but will be proximity talks facilitated by mediators and will last for six months in accordance with UNSCR 2254. The first round of talks will last two or three weeks, followed by a pause for deliberation and then a renewal of talks.[3]

The invitations to the talks, issued by de Mistura to the delegations on January 27, 2016, placed emphasis on the Vienna Declarations of October 30, 2015 and November 14, 2015, as well as on UNSC 2254, while the Geneva Communique of 2012 seems to have been marginalized as a basis for resolving the crisis.[4] The invitations stressed that the negotiations will be “consultations on ways to resolve the crisis and formulating principles for a permanent settlement.” They stated further that the UN Security Council had defined the desired result of the negotiations as “the establishment of a credible regime that includes everyone and is not predicated on a sectarian basis…”[5]

Invitations were issued to the regime delegation and to the delegation of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), a body that was formed at the December 9, 2015 opposition conference in Riyadh and has close ties with Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Invitations were also issued to opposition figures, unaffiliated with the NHC and are closer to the Syrian regime, chief among them Haytham Manna’ and Qadri Jamil.

The agenda for the talks, as announced by de Mistura at a January 25 press conference, reflects a complete rejection of the HNC’s preconditions for the talks, which included ceasing the bombardment of civilians and lifting the siege from areas in Syria. The invitation of opposition elements unaffiliated with the HNC represents a capitulation to Russia’s demands and a rejection of the HNC’s demand to be the only opposition delegation at the talks.

However, de Mistura rejected the demand of Russia and the Syrian regime to intervene in the makeup of the HNC delegation itself and veto military figures, chiefly Muhammad ‘Aloush, a senior member of Jaysh Al-Islam, which Russia and the Syrian regime regard as a terror organization. In addition, Salih Muslim Muhammad, co-chairman of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, was not invited, probably due to pressure from Turkey.

This document will review the positions of both the Syrian regime and the opposition on the eve of the Geneva talks.

Syrian Regime: Dialogue Conditional Upon Our Approval Of Opposition Delegation

The Syrian regime comes to the talks with the upper hand, both militarily, due to its achievements on the ground and the active participation of the Russian air force in combating regime opponents, and politically, thanks to UNSCR 2253 regarding the struggle against terrorism and also UNSCR 2254, which reflects a softening of the international community’s position vis-a-vis the Assad regime.[6]Additionally, the regime sees the UN’s involvement in local ceasefires that were recently signed in several areas in Syria, and which were achieved according to the regime’s own model, as constituting international acceptance of its methods to calm the situation on the ground.[7] The agenda outlined by de Mistura – namely achieving a comprehensive ceasefire, eliminating the threat of ISIS, and ensuring humanitarian aid to the populace – as well as the inclusion in the talks of opposition elements not associated with the HNC, all considerably benefit the Syrian regime.

Empowered by its success in softening the international community’s position, the regime did not wish to be blamed for obstructing the talks, and therefore was open to participating in them, while adhering to its positions and attempting to change the makeup of the opposition delegation – a goal it achieved to some extent with the inclusion in the talks of opposition figures, who are more moderate in their position towards it.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu’allem said after meeting in Damascus with Staffan de Mistura on January 8, 2016: “We have expressed willingness to participate in the Syrian-Syrian dialogue at the Geneva meetings… [but] it is vital that we know the names of the opposition delegation members…”[8]Al-Mu’allem also demanded to receive the list of terrorist organizations in Syria, which, according to the November 14, 2015 Vienna  Declaration, is to be compiled by Jordan and approved by the UN.[9] An anonymous Syrian regime official also said that “the regime has the right to oppose any name or element on the [opposition delegation] list,” and added that “Damascus will refuse to conduct dialogue with any terrorist organization or any group with clear ties to terrorist organizations as defined by the UN,” but stressed that the definition of terrorism includes “anyone who bears arms against the state,” alluding to all opposition fighters.[10] This statement effectively renders the list of terrorist organizations insignificant.

According to media close to the Syrian regime, the regime delegation for this round of talks will be at a lower level of representation than the one that participated in Geneva II, which was headed by Foreign Minister Al-Mu’allem and included President Assad’s political advisor Bouthaina Sha’aban. The current delegation will be headed by Bashar Al-Ja’afari, Syria’s Permanent Representative to the UN, with Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Miqdad in charge of the talks. This perhaps indicates the regime’s estimate that these talks will mark no progress and that it is unprepared to show flexibility.

However, it seems that Russia is pressuring the regime to send higher-level officials to the talks. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said: “The invitation [to the talks] issued by UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura was addressed to Walid Al-Mu’allem, since he is the Syrian foreign minister and the head of the [Syrian] government’s delegation to the negotiations.”[11] 

Another example of the regime’s inflexibility and its estimate that these talks will be barren can be seen in articles in official and pro-regime Syrian media, which repeatedly state that the talks will only succeed if Syria’s rivals, chiefly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, end their support for terrorism, otherwise it will be the reality on the ground that will determine the talks’ results. For instance, ‘Imad Salem, writing for the government daily Al-Ba’ath, expressed skepticism about the success of Geneva III, saying that, even if it is convened, “the war will not end as long as the international community does not push to dry out the sources of terrorism. [Failure to do so means] the situation on the ground will have the decisive say, and harbingers of this are already appearing… Ultimately the campaign is one of breaking bones, and the winner will determine the face of the world…”[12]

Similar statements were made by Ahmad Dawa, a columnist for the government daily Al-Thawra: “Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and [other] terror-supporting countries that stand with them – such as Turkey, Israel and several European countries like France and Britain, and chiefly the U.S. – can only participate in finding a political solution for the Syria crisis if they end their support for terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq… Any political solution will be meaningless unless terrorism is completely eliminated. The return of security and stability, and the rule of the Syrian state throughout Syrian land, are necessary conditions for achieving and implementing any political solution agreed upon by Syrians… Thus far, and despite increasing talk of a political solution, the first and last word will be spoken on the ground…”[13]

Maysoun Yousuf, a columnist for the pro-regime daily Al-Watan, wrote: “…The UN, in some form or another, accepted the Syrian rationale by adopting Resolution 2253 on combating terrorism and Resolution 2254 on the political process. Reality proves that [the situation on] the ground has a direct and substantial influence on political processes… We hope that the political process begins in earnest… since if it does begin, it will be a translation of achievements on the ground in Syria’s favor. It seems that the opponents will be unable to accept this and will therefore try to thwart it any way they can until the final moment.”[14]

Russia Aiming To Divide The Opposition

The regime’s position, which has remained unchanged since the crisis began, has received Russia’s full backing and support, at least publicly. Russia also contested the opposition delegation presented by the HNC, and called for expanding the opposition delegation to include figures close to Russia itself, who are known to hold opinions more accepting of the Assad regime, such as Qadri Jamil, who lives in Moscow, representatives of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party headed by Salih Muslim Muhammad, and Syrian Democratic Council chair Haytham Manna’.

Many reports in the Arab press indicate that Russia is aiming to divide the opposition delegation to the Geneva talks so that it includes two coequal groups – one representing the HNC and the other representing pro-Russian opposition elements[15] – which would further cement the opposition’s divide and weaken its position vis-à-vis the regime. Russia has been partially successful in this, since Jamil Qadri and Haytham Manna’ have been invited to participate in the talks on an equal footing with the HNC delegation. However, as mentioned, Russia’s demand to veto the participation of Muhammad ‘Aloush, of Jaysh Al-Islam, was not met, nor was its demand to invite Salih Muslim Muhammad, co-chairman of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party.

At a press conference with his Qatari counterpart in Moscow on January 17, 2016, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov even mentioned the possibility of holding Geneva-circumventing talks, when he expressed hope that talks between the Syrian regime and the opposition would begin this month in Damascus.[16] This call for talks in Damascus dovetails with the regime’s call to conduct talks on Syrian soil. This demand is unlikely to be accepted by the political opposition represented by the HNC, and therefore it seems to hint at talks with a more accommodationist Syrian-based opposition.

Syrian Opposition In Weak Position Due To U.S. Pressures

The Syrian opposition comes to this round of talks more divided and in a weaker position than ever. Unlike Geneva II, where it was represented by a single delegation, this round will apparently be attended by two opposition delegations, of equal status but with completely different agendas and goals. Moreover, it appears that the U.S., which was to counterbalance Russia’s support for the Syrian regime, is becoming ever more receptive to the Russian position on resolving the Syria crisis. This position places the mainstream Syrian opposition – which is supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, and is represented by the HNC, headed by Dr. Riad Hijab, and by the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces – in an inferior position.

The mainstream opposition did express willingness to participate in the Geneva talks, but questioned the effectiveness of negotiating with a regime that they claim controls at most some 18% of Syrian territory. Officials in this stream also stressed that changing the reality on the ground will influence the political solution, and therefore called on Saudi Arabia to increase its military aid and provide it with quality weapons in order to change the power balance on the battlefield.[17]

The HNC made its participation in the talks conditional upon the regime taking far-reaching confidence-building steps such as releasing prisoners, halting airstrikes against the local population, and lifting sieges. The HNC determined that the purpose of the talks was “to establish a new political regime with no place for Bashar Al-Assad and his gang.”[18]

Officials in this stream harshly criticized Russia, especially following the death of Jaysh Al-Islam commander Zahran ‘Aloush, who they claim was killed in a Russian airstrike. National Coalition President Khaled Khoja claimed that “Russia wants to eliminate opposition leaders prior to the start of negotiations and replace the real opposition with a fake one.”[19] This challenge to Russia was also embodied by the selection of Zahran ‘Aloush’s cousin Muhammad, an official in Jaysh Al-Islam, which Russia defines as a terrorist organization, as the opposition delegation’s “senior negotiator.”

On the eve of the talks, the HNC was subjected to intense pressure by several parties. One source of pressure was, not surprisingly, the Syrian regime and Russia. They demanded to change the makeup of the opposition delegation and include figures from the Syria-based opposition, which is close to Russia and whose positions on the goals of the negotiations and the way to achieve these goals are completely different from the HNC’s.

Another source of pressure was these opposition figures themselves, such as Salih Muslim Muhammad of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party; Haytham Manna’, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, and Qadri Jamil, who resides in Russia. These figures demand to be included in the negotiations, as part of the opposition delegation or as a separate delegation, a demand that is backed by Russia.

But the most significant source of pressure was actually the U.S., counter to expectations that it would support the Syrian opposition and counterbalance Russia’s consistent backing of the Syrian regime. HNC senior officials claimed that, in a January 23, 2016 meeting with opposition representatives in Riyadh, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed “a scary retreat in the U.S. position” when he pressured them to comply with Russian and Syrian regime dictates, and even threatened that  if they did not, they would lose the support of their allies. According to these officials, Kerry also clarified that their preconditions for the talks – such as dispatching humanitarian aid and lifting the siege from Syrian cities – would be discussed in the talks themselves. He also told them that Assad had the right to run in the future Syrian elections, that de Mistura was entitled to intervene in the makeup of the opposition delegation, and that the talks would lead to the establishment of a national unity government. This contravenes the 2012 Geneva I Communique and effectively means leaving the Syrian regime in power.[20]

The HNC was also pressured by UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura himself, who in effect rejected out of hand the HNC’s preconditions for the negotiations, as well as its demands to be the sole representative of the opposition at the talks. Merely by issuing the invitations, de Mistura placed the HNC before an impossible choice, because coming to the talks will mean relinquishing its demands and starting the negotiations from a position of weakness, whereas boycotting the talks would mean giving up any chance of affecting their outcome – since, according to de Mistura, the talks will take place even if not all the invited parties arrive.

Syrian Opposition Succumbs To U.S. Dictates

Despite the HNC’s sharp criticism of the U.S.’s position, it will apparently be compelled to accept the U.S. dictates and agree to the participation of other opposition elements in the negotiations. Attending the talks will mean accepting the suggested agenda, thereby forgoing its preconditions of ceasing the bombardment of the civilian population and lifting local sieges.

In these circumstances, it is unclear what implications the HNC’s participation in the talks will have, and how its participation will affect the opposition forces in the field, most of whom are strongly opposed to the survival of the Assad regime. It is also unclear whether the HNC will be able to force these elements to comply with understandings reached in the talks, should there be any.


*N. Mozes and M. Terdiman are research fellows at MEMRI.




[1] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 1214, UN Security Council Resolution 2254 On Syria: International Community Softens Its Position On Assad Regime, December 28, 2015.

[2] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 25, 2016.

[3] Webtv.un.org, January 25, 2016.

[4] For a comparison between the Geneva Communique and UNSC 2254, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1214, UN Security Council Resolution 2254 On Syria: International Community Softens Its Position On Assad Regime, December 28, 2015.

[5] All4syria.info, January 26, 2016.

[6] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 1214, UN Security Council Resolution 2254 On Syria: International Community Softens Its Position On Assad Regime, December 28, 2015.

[7] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 1221, Local Ceasefire Agreements In Syria: Capitulation To Regime’s Siege-And-Starvation Strategy Under UN Sponsorship, January 26, 2016.

[8] SANA News Agency (Syria), January 9, 2016.

[9] Al-Hayat (London), January 9, 2016.

[10] Al-Watan (Syria), January 5, 2016.

[11] SANA (Syria), January 27, 2016.

[12] Al-Ba’ath (Syria), January 14, 2016.

[13] Al-Thawra (Syria), January 10, 2016.

[14] Al-Watan (Syria), January 19, 2016.

[15] Al-Hayat (London), January 20, 2016.

[16] Reuters.com, January 18, 2016.

[17] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 7, 2016.

[18] All4syria.info, December 10, 2015.

[19] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 4, 2016.

[20] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1214, UN Security Council Resolution 2254 On Syria: International Community Softens Its Position On Assad Regime, December 28, 2015.