Vienna and the Challenges of the Syrian Issue

The Syrian opposition finds itself today in front of a significant test: either to push for a unified effort and full coordination before entering into the political process, or face being placed on a list of terrorist organizations

The Vienna joint-statement stressed the need for an agreement between all countries concerned with the Syrian issue to identify those factions and groups operating inside Syria to be included on the "terrorist" list. Amman was assigned to work on the preparation of the list with the help of a number of intelligence representatives from countries that participated in the conference prior to the commencement of a political process. The Paris attacks, which took place on the eve of the recent Vienna meeting, benefited Moscow in its attempt to impose its vision on the conference, bringing the fight against "terrorism" back to the forefront of negotiations.

In parallel with the agreement to identify a list of terrorist organizations in Syria, there was a consensus on the need to launch a political process in accordance with a timetable consisting of three successive periods, ending December 2017. The first phase, which is set to begin early 2016, will see the start of a negotiation process under the auspices of the United Nations, with the aim of reaching an agreement on a cease-fire mechanism. The second period will start after the establishment of "a credible, inclusive and non-sectarian rule," in addition to constitutional reforms. The final period will witness presidential and parliamentary elections under UN auspices, with all Syrians at home and abroad, both in refugee camps and the wider diaspora, securing full voting rights.

Russian diplomacy took advantage of the failure of the US-led international coalition against ISIS as an excuse to intervene in Syria, and it appears Moscow wants to use this failure to impose its vision of a political solution after securing an indispensable position in determining Syria’s future. Moscow has been made a mandatory partner for all political and diplomatic moves seeking a solution to the Syrian crisis, which began to directly impact on regional and international security. This has resulted in parties adopting a number of common points to kick-start a political process through the Vienna path.

Furthermore, the failure of UN envoy Staffan de Mistura's labors have forced him to reconsider his inadequate political arguments in an effort to secure a cease-fire in the framework of a comprehensive political process, which will lead to a transitional phase based on a regional and international consensus. The common goals between Moscow and Washington (fighting ISIS) have created a suitable environment for an expanded meeting attended by all stakeholders. But these efforts, which have tried to focus on the common issues while postponing the most problematic ones, have remained a potential destabilizing threat to the whole political process. The essential problems such as the future of President Bashar al-Assad, his participation in any possible future elections, his position during the transitional phase, his relationship with the army and the security services, in addition to other sensitive issues, all remained unresolved. The classification of terrorist groups will constitute another major point of contention amid Russian and Iranian attempts to include most of the opposition factions in the list of "terrorist" organizations, while the US remains suspiciously silent on the matter.

Syrian Opposition's Stance and Options

Syria’s armed opposition finds itself in a fierce confrontation, as it tries to repel ISIS and all attempts to recapture ground by regime forces, with support from Iranian, Lebanese and Iraqi militias backed by Russian air cover. But the opposition's next political battle is set to look even fiercer, as representatives were excluded from the Vienna talks while its role is now limited to negotiating the procedures for implementing a solution, not its foundations. This puts the Islamic opposition factions under the threat of being classified as terrorist organizations, especially if they reject the path agreed upon by the US and Russia.

The situation is to become even more complex during December’s conference for Syria’s political and armed opposition in Riyadh. The preparations for a unified opposition delegation is a difficult task, but looks easy in comparison with negotiations that have no clear or known basis with a regime that has shown more stubbornness since the Russian intervention, and does not seem to be interested in making concessions.

The Syrian opposition finds itself today in front of a significant test: either to push for a unified effort and full coordination before entering into the political process, change its discourse and behavior, end the rivalry and estrangement between its military and political wings, and prove the regime wrong about about the lack of partnership in a political process, or face being placed on a list of terrorist organizations, which hangs like a sword over the heads of all factions. On that basis, the upcoming Riyadh conference will be a chance to reorganize the forces of the Syrian opposition, instead of leaving the door open for the international powers to choose an opposition delegation to negotiate with the regime (especially as leaks have shown lists of delegates pre-chosen by international powers). The conference may also improve the conditions of the opposition, especially considering Vienna’s outcomes remain inconclusive with a margin to improve the political and negotiating (and even the military) conditions of the opposition.

The Vienna statements, especially the most recent, represent a new phase in the Syrian issue, which could lead to the start of a political process. But regional and international powers can still derail this process; as controversy continues over the fate of Assad and his role in the transitional phase, dealing with terrorist groups, as well the mechanisms and monitoring of the cease-fire process. The latter issue is extremely complex due to the number of armed factions on the ground, and the difficulty of determining demarcation lines in a number of areas; which creates difficulties in investigating cease-fire violations. But, as the Vienna path is the only path available today for political maneuvering to resolve the Syrian issue, it is expected that the coming period will witness intensive diplomatic movement in search of opportunities to enhance and support the Vienna statement. In all cases, regardless of the prospects of success of the Vienna path, the Syrian opposition must reassess its military and political institutions, its parliament and its executive body.

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.

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