Column: What is next for Syria's opposition?

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 18, 2013 1:40 PM
Column: What is next for Syria's opposition?

By Daniel Serwer

The Syrian regime is crowing victory. The Russians are satisfied at preventing an American military intervention. President Obama is glad to have avoided a Congressional vote against it. Israel is pleased to see Syria's chemical weapons capability zeroed out, provided the framework agreement reached last week is fully implemented. Even Iran is backing it, while continuing to deny that the regime was responsible for using chemical weapons.

What about the Syrian opposition?

The agreement on chemical weapons leaves them out in the cold. Bashar al-Assad is now vital to implementation of the agreement and will procrastinate implementing it for as long as possible. While destruction of Syria's chemical weapons capability is supposed to be completed by mid-2014, the logistical challenges involved are colossal. Just accounting for and collecting the 1,000 tons of material will be an enormous task, before getting to deployment of observers and physical destruction, which will likely require shipping the material out of Syria to Russia. Wartime conditions will double the difficulties and prolong the process, even if the regime decides to cooperate fully. That's unlikely.

Nothing in the agreement changes the battlefield situation. Chemical attacks never made more than a marginal contribution to the regime's killing capacity. They have killed fewer than 2 percent of the total casualties in Syria's war. The regime is ratcheting up the violence using conventional weapons. It is raining ordnance on liberated areas with renewed vigor after a several weeks' lull.

The United States, Britain and France are pledging to step up assistance to the opposition, which last weekend finally named a "prime minister" to head an interim government. A dentist with both Islamist and dissident credentials, Saudi-friendly Ahmad Tomeh is expected to name a government that will try to improve delivery of services in liberated areas. There are reports of accelerated weapons deliveries to vetted Syrian Free Army units, and a possible shift of responsibility from the CIA to the Department of Defense, but at the moment the regime still seems to have the initiative on the battlefield.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is insisting on moving forward with efforts to negotiate an end to the war, by convening a conference aimed at implementing a June 2012 Geneva communique calling for a transitional government with full executive powers agreed by both regime and opposition. It is not clear however whether Russian willingness to cooperate with the U.S. on chemical weapons will lap over to convening the "Geneva II" conference, which has been stalled for months. In accordance with the Geneva I agreement of June 2012, it is supposed to transfer all executive power away from Bashar al-Assad and give it to a mutually agreed upon interim government. Moscow doesn't seem at all ready for that. Passage and implementation of a U.N. Security Council resolution in support of the chemical weapons agreement is likely to take up most diplomatic bandwidth for several more weeks, and perhaps more.

The Syrian opposition coalition is under no illusions. They are worried that Geneva II will not fulfill the promise of Geneva I. The chemical weapons agreement is welcome so far as it saves lives, but it is also a distraction. The opposition wants more weapons for the Free Syrian Army and Western military intervention against the regime's air force and missiles, which make governing liberated areas almost impossible. Without this, there is little prospect for a successful negotiation or implementation of the chemical weapons agreement.

While U.S. intervention might have helped extremist recruitment, the failure of the U.S. to intervene militarily does nothing to weaken radical opposition strains or strengthen the coalition moderates who have cooperated with the U.S. Already close to half the opposition fighters are thought to be jihadists or hardliners closely allied with them. The civic-minded nonviolent activists who began the Syrian revolution in 2011 are being pushed to the sidelines. They have shifted most of their efforts to supplying humanitarian relief, in competition with well-organized mosques and other Islamic organizations.

Perhaps the most promising news for the opposition in recent days — unreported by Western media — is the decision of the Kurdish National Council to join the Coalition, reportedly on the basis of a solid agreement ensuring Kurdish rights in the post-Assad Syria. Kurdish adhesion would give the Coalition a broader base and the Syrian Free Army important allies. But it is small comfort to those who had hoped for American intervention.

While the world celebrates American/Russian rapprochement, an end to the war and a transition to democracy seem farther off than ever.

(Daniel Serwer is a Reuters columnist. Opinions are his own.)