PHOTO: Opposition rally in Maarat al-Num’an in Idlib Province, March 18, 2016
Lara Nelson, an independent consultant for the Syrian Opposition since 2013, speaks with TRT World about the state of the conflict, the possibilities of negotiations, the UN’s “contradictory role”, and the damage of the media’s over-emphasis on the Islamic State:
Firstly, can you tell us a bit about the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) and Riad Hijab? What does the Opposition stand for? Is it more united then before?
The formation of the HNC under the leadership of Dr Riyad Hijab is a really positive development. It’s the first time all military and political groups are represented in a united body under the leadership of someone highly respected, so yes I see it as a positive step because it is united more than ever before. Hijab was the Prime Minister of Syria before he defected, which makes him the most senior political defector within the Syrian Opposition< He has good links with the political landscape of the Syrian Opposition and he’s highly respected by the military side as well.To see what the Syrian Opposition stands for, you only have to read those slogans that we’ve seen reappearing recently with protests, once again on the streets in Syria. Five years later, even after so much pain, Syrians are still calling for the fall of the regime, for freedom, dignity and justice. They want a united Syria for all Syrians, without the corruption and sectarianism that characterised life under the Assad regime.
What is the Opposition’s agenda in Geneva? Would the Opposition work with the regime for a transition? Does the opposition make a distinction between Assad and the regime for that matter, finding one of them workable and the other not?
The main aim of Geneva is to form a Transitional Governing Body with full executive powers made up of both opposition and regime figures, this body would then be responsible for drafting a new constitution and administering the interim period before elections. This is what has been detailed in the Security Council Resolutions as well as the Geneva Communique. Clearly parts of state institutions are still workable, the Syrian Opposition does not want to see the state dissolved, but wants the removal of those authors and architects of the war crimes we’ve seen unfold over the last five years, as well as the corruption which drove many to start the revolution in 2011. Assad and his family are considered to typify these parts.
Is it likely to reach a conclusion at Geneva? There had been talks before, which did not yield serious results, do you have hopes this time will be different? Is there any chance that things can be sorted out with the Assad regime?
I was supporting the Opposition’s media team at Geneva 2 [in January 2014] and I saw how the regime had no intention of committing to anything serious at the talks, not even the agenda, it did its usual thing of trying to make the conversation about terrorism rather than about transition. However, conditions are different now, I think it’s been positive having the Cessation of Hostilities in the lead-up to talks, and I think there’s more resolve within the international community to put an end to this. I’m always hopeful that things will succeed in some way, you can’t continue working on Syria without holding on to some hope in these things.
We know Iran has been there all along but how did the heavy Russian military involvement affect the equation in Syria? Quite recently it was announced that Russia is withdrawing its forces. Why did they come in the first place, why are they leaving now?
Regime forces were looking pretty weak before Russia stepped in with its military strikes in September 2015. The regime had lost Idlib to the rebels, who were also encroaching on Latakia Province, the regime’s Alawite heartland. It also lost an important chunk of the reinforcement road which connects the capital to northern Syria. Its ground forces were completely depleted, run and dominated by foreign Shia militias. It looked like the regime was losing control in a major way.
At this point Russia stepped in with its air strikes at the end of September 2015 and is enjoying being a crucial player in this major crisis, knowing that its role is vital to the end result. Russia was operating as the regime’s air force with its strikes in Syria, which meant adopting its tactics of forced displacement, indiscriminate bombing and use of illegal weapons including the widespread use of cluster bombs —- there has been some horrific footage of this. Because of the regime’s weakness of ground-forces, in order to retake areas Russia used a scorched earth policy to obliterate areas into dust before militias move in to take the area, this was seen clearly in Sheikh Miskeen in Daraa.
I wrote about this recently. Any reduction of this harmful dynamic is a positive step. I hope that this withdrawal is a move to pressure the regime to commit seriously to Geneva, their intention and the effects of this move will be evident in the coming weeks.
Has the UN’s role been constructive in this entire process?
The UN has a contradictory role in the conflict, by definition it should respect the sovereignty of Syria and its government, which means working with the regime. Ironically this means the UN, as the party standing for human rights etc, continues to work with and respect the very party that has a state policy of war crimes and abusing human rights across the country.
When it comes to humanitarian aid for example, very little UN aid gets to opposition areas, despite there being multiple Security Council Resolutions allowing for aid to be delivered cross conflict lines, into non-regime territory. For example, we are now three weeks into the Cessation of Hostilities and the opposition area of Darayya, besieged for over three years by the regime, has seen no aid.
I saw one quote from a resident in Douma, eastern Ghouta, which summed up what many Syrians feel about the UN: “People consider this a siege by the UN and not by the regime. If the UN wanted to go in, they would have gone in.”
I think there are UN figures in Damascus that don’t want to upset the regime. There was a great investigative piece recently showing how the UN toned down the language in its reports describing the starvation going on in Madaya, at the request of Damascus. This hypocrisy really needs to be thoroughly investigated.
Let’s talk a bit about ISIS [Islamic State]. The terrorist organisation receives a huge chunk of the media attention to Syria. Do you think it obscures what is actually going on? Did ISIS’s brutality actually save Assad?
Absolutely, the media coverage actually plays right into ISIS’s hands. Coverage is disproportionate.
Take statistics on casualty numbers, rights groups calculated since the start of the Revolution the regime was responsible for around 96% of civilians killed in Syria, compared with under 1% from ISIS. Now that’s not to excuse ISIS, because their crimes, ideology and activities in Syria are horrendous; however, it’s important to be clear that the regime is the most proliferate and brutal killer by far.
It seems odd [that US Secretary of State John] Kerry [is] talking about ISIS’s genocide next to a regime that has been systematically killing Syrians for the past five years. There are endless reports from the UN and human rights groups documenting appalling war crimes by the Assad regime. Just last month the UN released a report talking about the regime’s systematic “extermination” of detainees, so the full reality should be considered carefully if there’s going to be a discussion about genocide.
What is also ironic is that the media attention plays into ISIS’s strategy. Characteristic of a terrorist organisation, fear is ISIS’s weapon, so by amplifying its brutality, the media is spreading and strengthening the effects of that weapon. Another party who also benefits from this narrative is of course the regime, who calls all those opponents on the ground “terrorist”, as it did with those unarmed protestors at the start of the Revolution. The emergence of ISIS was the ultimate justification of this narrative and the regime’s hope was that this would be their ticket to rehabilitation if the West finally saw the choice as between ISIS [DAESH] and Assad.
Now in reality, the regime has been a lousy counter-terrorism partner, in Aleppo today for example, the 20 km frontline [in northern Aleppo] between ISIS and the regime is completely peaceful, while both forces focus their attention on the moderate opposition. The regime also continues to buy oil from ISIS, adding to its wealth and strength.
How did ISIS’s terrorist attacks in the West change the equation?
The policy focus shifted to the priority of defeating ISIS in Syria. This was a big mistake, and demonstrated a major misunderstanding of the causes of ISIS in Syria and how it can be sustainably defeated. ISIS is an infection in a wound that is the Assad regime’s making. Now focusing on the infection rather that stopping the cause of the wound is illogical. So long as instability and carnage continues in Syria, ISIS will continue to spread.
Do you expect a change of borders? Is it possible to keep Syria intact? Is it feasible, is it desirable?
The fragmentation of Syria becomes more real as the chaos continues. The Kurds have capitalized on this recently after gaining a lot of territory in the north.
I think the diplomatic process in Geneva is crucial over the coming period. If the regime is not made to commit to the aims of the Geneva process as stated in Security Council Resolutions and the 2012 Geneva Communique, then I think there are serious risks that the country may be divided. Syrians themselves fear this, I read a sign at a recent protest in Idlib which said “Sykes-Picot 1916, Lavrov-Kerry 2016.”
Does the Opposition feel abandoned by their Western allies?
Yes, I think they wish they had the sort of friends that Russia and Iran are to the regime. Western allies have been brilliant with words, but actions have been severely lacking. There’s a long list of appalling war crimes committed by the regime which the West has just responded to with words: chemical weapons, sectarian massacres, barrel bombs, forced displacement, torture on a massive scale, the list goes on. Most recently, they felt abandoned in the face of Russia’s brutal air strikes campaign, which was aimed at opposition held areas and caused high civilian casualties.
What do you think is the biggest obstacle to peace in Syria?
Two things, probably the strength and unity of the regime’s allies versus the weakness in resolve and division of the Opposition’s allies.