It’s a candle in the desert night, nothing more. But as the New Year draws near, Syria’s fractious opposition to Bashar Assad’s murderous regime is finally showing some sign of getting its act together. That raises a hope — however faint — of winding down a civil war that has shattered the nation.
At a meeting in Saudi Arabia this past week, 100 key opposition political leaders and fighters set aside their differences long enough to form a joint “high commission” to kick off talks with the regime. In effect this creates a mechanism for the first time for a broad spectrum of the Syrian political opposition and armed factions to discuss a settlement.
It’s the most ambitious effort yet to get the opposition together.
Fragile though the entente is, rallying the opposition to a common agenda is a precondition for ending the civil war that has raged for nearly five years, killing 250,000 and sending millions into exile. Some 25,000 are now making their way to Canada, seeking to rebuild broken lives. But until now, Assad and his Russian and Iranian enablers have been able to claim that the regime lacks a credible negotiating partner.
That will be harder to justify, if the opposition can hang together.
“The Syrian opposition is willing to engage in a political solution to the crisis,” says Syrian National Coalition head Khaled Khoja. The American-backed SNC is the main umbrella group for Assad’s exiled political foes. “This will be a test for the regime and its allies,” adds Khalaf al-Dawood, a member of the National Coordination Body, a Syria-based opposition group.
It will be no less a test for the opposition.
Assad’s foes include not only the Khoja and al-Dawood organizations but also a slew of armed groups with their own agendas: the American-backed Free Syrian Army, the Islamist fighting brigades Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, and a string of local Islamist militias.
Moreover two other key players, the Kurds and the powerful Jabhat al-Nusra brigades which are loyal to Al Qaeda, aren’t part of the common front.
Yet despite the fissures, this tentative meeting of the minds of the bulk of Syria’s opposition forces matters.
Their common front grows out of a plan put forward in Vienna last month by the International Syria Support Group, which includes the United Nations, the U.S., the European Union, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other countries. They called on Assad and his foes to hold talks to secure a ceasefire and set up a transitional government, then arrange elections.
The UN is expected to host the first talks early next month.
War-weary Syrians can only hope.
The obstacles ahead are huge. The opposition’s overriding priority is Assad’s early ouster. So far there’s no sign that Russia and Iran will accept that. But if talks get underway Moscow and Tehran will have to choose between continuing to prop up a discredited regime or working with the U.S. and others to produce a legitimate one.
Additionally, if talks do get off the ground the opposition will have to honour its commitment to replace Assad’s Alawite-led regime with a government that represents “all sectors of the Syrian people.” That’s essential, to reassure the Alawite, Christian and Kurdish minorities that they won’t face persecution.
Brokering a peace is in the interest not only of the U.S. and its allies, but also of Russia and Iran, because it would buoy hopes of defeating a common enemy: the Islamic State jihadists who have capitalized on the war to carve out a self-proclaimed caliphate in much of the country, from which they are spreading terror abroad.
What peace might look like remains to be seen. But Syrians — and the world — need an exit from this nightmare. This opens a door.