The danger of what is happening and what will happen in Syria is the deep feeling among some officials in Damascus of “victory,” mixed with suspicion of Putin’s intentions. There is a conviction that all internal, regional and international factors are in favor of the regime and its allies, and the belief that there is a window of opportunity that should be seized. In the final year of President Barack Obama’s tenure before a new US administration is appointed, the current plan in Damascus and Tehran, with Moscow supporting it in accordance with its priorities, is based on a solid equation: create military and political “achievements” that will be a fait accompli on the new American president’s table.
Politically, this involves using the Geneva platform to push for a political settlement based on the premise that the regime is in the strongest position. The formula is creating an “expanded national unity government” from regime loyalists, opposition members, independents, and “others” — the selection criteria will be defined by Damascus and its allies. In practice, this will be opposition members, or some of them, from the Moscow and Cairo groups and the “Heimemem Group.” There is also no objection to including some opposition military figures.
The standard for this is accepting that the government will be formed in accordance with the current constitution for the year 2012, and swearing the constitutional oath before President Bashar al-Assad. It is possible this could be called an “authority” in accordance with the text of Resolution 2254. The mission of this “authority” would be to monitor the “political transition,” that is, work on drafting a new constitution, as Resolution 2254 calls for, whereby the “state” would have the upper hand in defining the new document. There are 23 articles in the current constitution that talk about presidential powers. The negotiation is over their distribution. The regime will be ready to give up some executive, judicial and legislative powers, but the essential powers will remain in the hands of the president, especially in connection with the army and security.
Russia will be eager to persuade Damascus to take this step to correspond with the timeframe of Resolution 2254 by forming it in the coming two months, and then carrying out the promise made by Secretary of State John Kerry on March 24 to draft a new constitution in August, which will be the basis of elections within a year after that.
In August, the gamble for Damascus and its allies is that the American administration will be in a hurry to make any achievement in the Syrian crisis, and will be in a weaker position for domestic reasons related to pressure from the Democratic Party and the nearing election season, and so it will officially accept the idea of agreeing to Assad’s nomination in the coming elections, and will be absolved of its elastic commitments to its regional and Syrian allies.
The bet of this trio — Damascus, Tehran, Moscow — will be supported by “military achievements.” There are reports that in Damascus there are those who believe that President Putin needs President Assad as much as the latter needs the former. Indeed some go so far as to think that “Russia is working for us." Therefore they will accept the military plan, which will include “nibbling” and a gradual expansion of the “useful Syria” through a period of two years. What is needed from Russia is air cover and special forces units. But at the same time, in Damascus there are questions about the Russian plan and the Kremlin’s understandings with the White House. Hence it is not strange that Syrian officials are asking Algeria to mediate with Moscow to clarify Putin’s intentions.
This military plan includes besieging Aleppo and cutting off supply routes to Turkey, Idleb and Hama. There is no problem with coordinating on the ground with Kurdish fighters. There is also no problem with benefiting from the dangers of ISIS.
The systematic bombardment of Aleppo aims to weaken the factors of resistance ahead of the coming siege. Hospitals, schools, mosques and water stations have been hit, in order to make civilians into pressure factors on the opposition fighters. It is a repeat of the Homs experience. Bombing, siege, and then local settlements.
Isolating Aleppo from Idleb will pave the way for the next stage: pursuing a “scorched earth” policy in Idleb. If there were enough fighters from the Nusra Front for the Obama administration to give the green light to Russia to besiege Aleppo in recognition of the difficulty of “distinguishing between Nusra and others,” and calling for factions to distance themselves from the Nusra Front, then the control of the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) coalition, which includes Nusra and allied Islamist brigades, will be enough to give cover for the destruction of Idleb and pursuance of the Grozny example there.
Degrading and destroying ISIS is Obama’s only clear policy. Apart from that there is nothing but political media statements. Therefore Russia will not hold back on giving Obama some “achievements.” It will allow the forces of the international coalition, under American leadership, to provide air cover to the Arab-Kurdish alliance to take control of the ISIS capital Raqqa before the end of the year, so that Obama is able to talk about an “achievement” equal to Putin’s achievement of regaining Palmyra. But the Kremlin will not give this “prize” to the White House without a price. The price is Obama’s agreement for full coordination between the American and Russian armies — an acknowledgment of parity — as well as more steps to “recover legitimacy for the Syrian regime,” that is, preparation for cooperation between Washington and the regime.
Until the “expanded government,” the isolation of Aleppo, the attack on Idleb, and the coalition coordination against ISIS, the local reconciliations come as a cornerstone of this plan to support the political and military tracks: Deescalation in some places, escalation in others, and settlements made as they are available. So, the meal Damascus will present to the opposition in Geneva and on the field will be: the expanded government according to our interpretation of Resolution 2254 or “scorched earth,” siege, and pulverization. That is, the talks are a way for the opposition to accept defeat, and not to be a partner in a solution.
The Opposition Plan
Faced with this picture, the options of the opposition and its allies are narrowing. But communications behind the scenes indicate efforts to crystallize an alternative plan. Some of its elements are: give enough support to the moderate opposition to avoid being crushed in the remaining year of the Obama administration while increasing the harmony between the political and military entities. Here there is a possibility of supplying the opposition with additional weapons to strengthen its “resilience” and survival in a difficult year, so that it does not dissolve into extremism and so that the rhetoric of extremism from groups like ISIS and Nusra is not hegemonic. Some accept a cessation of hostile actions and humanitarian aid to strengthen the factors of their survival in the coming months.
In addition, more coordination between the opposition Syrian National Coalition and the National Coordination Committee (internal opposition) to reach a joint vision beyond allying in the High Negotiations Committee. Here there is a gamble on cohesion remaining between the Committee and the militant factions in the south and north, and not losing the cooperation that has crystallized in recent months. This is one of the reasons the Committee and its general coordinator, Riyad Hijab, have pushed to consider the position of the militant factions as a basis for suspending participation in the Geneva talks.
Some opposition voices have appeared to push for the Committee to return to Geneva to “fill the gap” and hinder Damascus’s plan to form an “expanded government” with those who attend by creating a new list of opposition members who accept a cosmetic compromise. But the Committee’s gamble centers on the “street” and the “militant factions” and not risking losing the support — and regional accounts as well. Therefore it will not accept a return to Geneva unless there is progress on humanitarian and political issues and a halt to bombardment. In addition to that, there are efforts to communicate with Sunni opposition figures to convince them of the need not to become involved in the Russian project and “not give Sunni legitimacy” to the plan and breaking the project to reach the equation of an expanded government that includes some opposition figures considered to be opposition to face ISIS and extremists on the ground.
It also includes the need for the new American president when he or she comes to the White House and forms his or her administration after a year, to find moderate forces. Political and military forces that have a political, economic, constitutional and military vision, and have a conception for a new Syria which is a partner in finding a political solution.
There is a gamble that even if the “Russian project” continues to progress, it is destined to fail after a few months because it does not solve the essential issues, and it is a continuation of a “social contract” whose powers have ended. Forming an expanded government which includes figures who were in the 2011 government does not resolve the causes of rebellion and the real imbalances. The Russian intervention has imposed a new reality: Narrow your options or limit them. Victory is no longer available to the opposition. The most that is possible is improving the conditions for negotiation. The regime is no longer convinced of a moderate solution, even verbally. A situation of being “neither dominant nor dominated” is no longer viable. It is clear there are efforts for a “crushing victory.” Some officials are pursuing the delusion of victory, sending Syria into the trap of the regional conflict and Putin’s international ambitions and increasing Syrians’ loss of control … and opening the door to many, many waterfalls of blood in Syria.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.