During their meeting in Zurich Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov presented a new offer to his American counterpart, John Kerry, that the opposition be represented by two delegations: the “Russian list” and the “Riyadh list,” each with the “same number, same powers, and its own political authority,” and that negotiations be held between the two lists in Geneva to prepare for talks between government and opposition representatives on January 25.
International Resolution 2254 authorized UN envoy Staffan de Mistura to make contact with representatives of the Syrian government, opposition, and regional governments in preparation for the Geneva conference, and to form an opposition delegation from the Riyadh, Moscow and Cairo conferences.
De Mistura’s recent communications made clear the size of the gap between the interested parties’ positions. The Syrian government is “ready” to attend the Geneva conference, but rejects that representatives from militant factions be present, and desires a list naming the opposition delegation.
The opposition High Committee for Negotiations, which emerged from the Riyadh conference, demanded “goodwill” measures be taken ahead of the talks, that the humanitarian and political tracks be separated, and adherence to its negotiating delegation, its authority, and a negotiating agenda beginning with discussion of forming a transitional governing authority with full executive powers.
The international envoy, who insists on the need for talks “without preconditions,” was told by representatives of the “Friends of Syria” nations, including American Michael Ratney, that the Riyadh list “represents the opposition,” though there is the possibility of including “some opposition personalities affiliated with Moscow.”
The “Russian list” that Moscow put on the table for discussion includes 15 names: chairpersons of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party Salih Muslim, Asya ‘Abdallah, the party’s representative in Europe Khalid ‘Issa, head of the Syrian Democratic Council Haytham Manna’, Majid Habbo, head of the Popular Front for Liberation and Change Qadri Jamil, Mazen Maghribiyeh, and head of the Syrian Democratic Forum Samir al-Aita, in addition to Amina Wausau, Rim Turkmani, Abbas Habib, Randa Kassis, Nemrod Suleiman, Fateh Jamous, and Salim Khairbek of the internal opposition.
Some of those whose names were included on the “Russian list” denied on social media pages that they had been consulted. Some tried to distance themselves publicly while maintaining secret contacts with Moscow and including their names on other “lists.” The Russian foreign ministry demanded that they send an official letter of apology, while an individual close to the ministry told those protesting verbally: “There are many who want to join the list if you want to withdraw in writing.”
Moscow has succeeded in changing the priorities of the negotiations politically and in the media. The diplomatic discussion and the concerns of the international envoy no longer revolve around the agenda of the Geneva talks or the difference between the opposition’s demand to start by negotiating a “transitional ruling authority” and Damascus’s proposal to discuss “fighting terrorism,” or even the humanitarian dimensions or ending blockades on various areas; the priority has become political. And as discussions of the political issue proceed, the knot that needs untangling has become the composition of the opposition delegation.
An empowered Moscow, with its military presence and its “perpetual” military accord, has forced its interlocutors — including the Americans — to make one of two choices: a mixed opposition list; or two delegations, one the “Russian list,” and the other the “Riyadh list”.
The Russian position has become firmer daily, though Russia has negotiated, to an extent. As an official close to Moscow said yesterday, “A mixed delegation is no longer acceptable, because even if it included two or three people, there would be the problem of the political authority for this delegation, since the negotiating committee requires that anyone included on its list to accept the authority of the Riyadh conference, Turkey rejects the inclusion of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, and the U.S. has shown no desire to pressure Ankara. Therefore the only option now available is for the opposition to send two delegations to Geneva. The delegations could negotiate there to create a single delegation with agreed-upon authority, or enter the conference with two delegations.”
He said that if a three-sided table (one for the government, one for the “Russian list,” and one for the “Riyadh list”) is agreed upon, the international envoy and his team could carry out indirect talks between the “three teams” in different rooms.
The basis for Moscow’s tough stance is that “the talks must reflect the balance of power on the ground, and as Russia has become a major player, and the regime’s forces and its allies have achieved advances on the ground, the others must accept that,” according to the official.
He pointed out that a few days ago, the Russian government leaked the secret military agreement with the Syrian government, signed on August 26, which includes extraordinary powers and does not specify a timeframe, that “declares to everyone that the relationship with the Syrian government is lasting, is not linked with any individuals or with the regime, and that everyone must accept this reality. Any future government will need to accept the presence of the military base and Russian fighter planes.”
By extension, “the Russian presence is permanent, and it must conclude its military operations as soon as possible.” For that reason, Moscow believes that “it needs the political process and the Geneva conference more than any other party” in order to reach a solution, per to the Russian conception and understanding of the roadmap agreed upon between the International Syria Support Group and published in Resolution 2254, meaning “negotiation between the government and opposition to politically support a third rising force to arrive at a unified government paving the way for a new constitution and presidential and parliamentary elections so that Syrians may decide their future and the future of their leaders and political system,” according to the official.
One of the items of the negotiations between the government and opposition delegations that are “acceptable to Russia and that accept Russia” is the “executive powers” it will carry out, which means “authority over security agencies will remain in the custody of Bashar al-Assad, who remains high commander of the army and security [forces],” according to the official.
He added, “the Russian conception includes reforming the army and incorporating forces of the Free Syrian Army, with the exception of Islamist units, at some stage,” while “the united government prepares a program for reconstruction with international funding, which means making it acceptable to the Gulf and regional countries that are able to fund reconstruction.”
He further added, that “the Syrians will decide the future of their country, which party rules them, whether the state is federalist or decentralized, and the nature of the relationship with the Kurds and the [issue of] self-administration, but the government needs to remain united and undivided,” according to the official’s explanation of the “Vienna principles,” which also guarantee “the civilian nature of the state and the preservation of its institutions, especially the army, its unity, and its domestic and foreign policy.”
De Mistura’s office and Western envoys are acting as though the Geneva negotiations are happening next Monday, and have begun procedural matters related to booking accommodation for the government and opposition delegations, Yet at the same time, they know that the final decision depends upon the meeting between Kerry and Lavrov, which will determine whether the international envoy will send out written invitations to hold the talks, and if the Russians and Americans will pressure their allies to enter the talks seriously, or if they will be satisfied with the Geneva conference as a media opportunity.
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.