By Dr. Theodore Karasik
As the Syrian civil war enters into its 34th month, the chances for a peaceful solution are slimmer than a couple of months ago. The latest change in the structure of the opposition, as well as the shift in the power balance between various groups, dramatically alters the nature of the civil war. At the same time, the West has become aware that eventual victory of the empowered New Islamic Front will not bring democracy in post-Assad Syria.
Geneva II is scheduled for Jan. 22nd and over 30 countries have already confirmed their presence. Having been delayed for long enough, the peace talks will not be canceled. The success should give directions towards a political solution by providing the structure for a transitional government and directives on who should be included in that governmental body. Failed negotiations would be a major setback for the peace process and leave no room for hopes of an end to the Syrian civil war in the immediate future.
The U.S. is left with limited choice when deciding whom to support from within the opposition groups. The impact of the freeze of American and British aid to the opposition in northern Syria will hurt the all-time low standing of the Free Syrian Army, and will likely empower the Islamic Front. Assad’s regime has become increasingly stable and provided him with a solid excuse not to negotiate with Islamic terrorists. Lebanon could be destabilized as the Sunni population in the country and Hezbollah support different sides in the Syrian conflict.
Until the next peace talks, the U.S. is being forced to re-evaluate their approach to the Syrian conflict. The Obama administration has already frozen the non-lethal aid it was sending to northern Syria (food, computers, vehicles), as a consequence of the capturing of the supply warehouse and the headquarters of the FSA’s Supreme Military Command (SMC) in Bab al-Hawa. Amongst the stolen equipment there were main battle tanks, rocket launchers, mortars, ammunition, etc.
As Western-backed Maj. Gen. Salim Idris has failed in leading the Syrian opposition, U.S. envoy Robert Ford is on a mission to develop a new way to empower the moderate opposition. His recent Turkey – UK – Turkey trip is expected to result in solidifying the opposition before the peace talks in Switzerland. The U.S. is aware that only a moderate opposition which is powerful enough to pose a threat for Assad can be an effective negotiating party. However, the New Islamic Front is not excluded, and reports are implying initial talks have taken place with the U.S. envoy.
What could happen
Two scenarios are possible before January’s peace talks. The first, and preferred option, is that the West succeeds in incorporating the New Islamic Front in the delegation of the opposition. This will not only give legitimacy to the negotiating team but it will also enable successful implementation of possible positive outcomes of the talks. Such joining of forces will also mean certain alignment of the outside important players in the Syrian conflict – the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. It would be very difficult to achieve this as the Islamic Front will want to see its terms on the negotiating table. Also it is likely that they would want the negotiating team to mirror the power balance amongst the opposition groups, hence they would have larger presence.
The second scenario is that the Islamic Front is not represented in the peace talks, which will prevent, or seriously put in danger, any peace plan for Syria. Although they stand against al-Qaeda forces, the New Islamic front is composed of six rebel groups who are united in fighting for the establishment of a theocratic state under Shariah law. This founding principle is what prevents them from being a preferred partner in Syria. What makes the Islamic Front increasingly relevant and powerful is Saudi help and the free flow of jihadists coming from this country. Saudi Arabia’s proxy war in Syria is demonstrating success and pushes the West towards making difficult (and expensive) choices. If the West does not want to adopt the Islamic Front’s vision of a theocratic post-Assad Syria, then it will have to support the most recent plan for building a new conventional army – a substitute for the weakened FSA. The new army will be fully supported by the West and will pose a threat to Assad, and will prevail as the most powerful opposition group. France has already expressed support for this proposal, while the U.S. and UK are more reserved and are waiting for the outcome of the separate talks with different opposition groups, including the Islamic Front.
Overall, the composition of the Syrian opposition negotiating team is vital for the success of the January peace talks on Syria. Powerful groups left outside of the process would likely not respect any cease fire and delay any peaceful solution. This implies that the period leading up to the negotiations is as important as the negotiations. Recent reshuffling in the opposition camp and changes in the power balance of the rebels demand a fast response from key international players. The weakened partner of the West, the FSA, is at all-time low – it is fighting on few fronts, while many fighters used the amnesty offered by Assad and left the organization or defected for financial reasons. The West will have to make a quick and well informed decision with a more inclusive strategy which would not place all hopes on one man as it had done previously with Maj. Gen. Salim Idris.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angleshttp://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2014/01/04/Another-shifting-of-the-sands-in-Syria.html