Syrian Opposition’s Bid for Dialogue: Why Now?

Free Syrian Army fighters rest in Harasta near Damascus on 31 January 2013. (Photo: Reuters - Goran Tomasevic)

By: Nasser Charara

Published Thursday, January 31, 2013

On Wednesday, 30 January 2013, Moaz al-Khatib, president of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC), announced that he was prepared to hold talks with the regime. For many diplomats who have been closely following the activities of the Syrian opposition in Paris over the past several days, this did not come as a surprise.

Al-Akhbar has obtained the full story behind this development. In truth, Khatib’s statement is an expression of the weariness and confusion of the Syrian opposition – a result of the many disputes plaguing its ranks.

The past few days have been nothing but bad news for Khatib. First, the sponsors of the Kuwait donor conference for Syrian refugees didn’t invite the SNC to participate. Khatib has since come to the conclusion that elements within his coalition were in agreement with the snub, specifically the Syrian National Council wing dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Khatib wanted a political push through the formation of a government under his leadership that would represent the opposition abroad, as well as independents and figures from the opposition within Syria if possible.

However, this discussion ended up accentuating the intransigent attitude of the National Council wing, which wanted to oversee the major portfolios in this planned government.

Earlier, around the beginning of December 2012, Khatib and the French government had received unsettling reports that certain parties were preparing to hold a meeting for a part of the Syrian opposition in Geneva on 28 January, led by Haytham al-Manna of the opposition National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC).

For France, this meeting was seen as an attempt to thwart its bid to get the international community to gradually recognize the SNC as the exclusive representative of the Syrian opposition, and subsequently of the Syrian people.

According to reports, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius deliberately chose 28 January as the date of the Paris meeting to offer support to the SNC in order to hijack the media spotlight away from the Geneva meeting.

Faced with all these developments, Khatib has felt increasingly concerned that his coalition may collapse from a combination of adverse factors.

From within, the Muslim Brotherhood is seeking to impose its tacit control over the SNC. Internationally, Washington does not seem thoroughly convinced about its representation within Syria. Regionally, the Muslim Brotherhood and some countries in the Friends of Syria Group have many shared interests and calculations that may undermine the SNC.

The fact of the matter is that Khatib’s surprising statement about negotiating with the regime cannot be taken in isolation from the circumstances explained above. The leader of the SNC, according to sources, wanted to respond in kind to the sponsors of the Kuwait conference by pulling the rug from under their feet.

He also wanted to stir the pot on the Syrian scene and seize its place as an essential party in the political process.

This begs the question: Is Khatib’s proposal about holding talks with the regime merely a tactical maneuver related to the conflict within the Syrian opposition? Or is this a true strategic shift?

There are indications that Khatib has indeed decided to change his attitude. He’s possibly convinced that if he does not book a seat for himself at the dialogue table with the regime, he and his coalition will soon find themselves empty-handed, politically speaking.

Informed diplomatic sources gave Al-Akhbar the full account of what they called “the developments of the past two weeks,” which unfolded behind closed doors in several world capitals. These, they say, may have prompted Khatib, perhaps with encouragement from Paris, to detonate his bombshell statement. It goes as follows:

The early signs of the opposition’s change of heart emerged about three weeks ago. The first person to notice was UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who was quick to exploit them by initiating negotiations with the regime, proposing that President Bashar al-Assad appoint a representative to discuss the transition process.

But these negotiations soon reached a dead end, as the opposition would have preferred Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa to handle this task. Instead, Assad had named National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar for the job. Brahimi felt that this was proof that Assad did not want to pursue this avenue in earnest.

But the reactions to this bid begun by Brahimi did not end there. John Kerry, the new US secretary of state, made remarks during his nomination hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee which have not yet been fully publicized.

Some circles in the opposition took these remarks as encouraging the latter to continue with Brahimi in their search for a climate conducive to dialogue with the regime.

Meanwhile, Kerry said the goal of US policy is “a peaceful transition to a new government.” But in what could be a criticism of the opposition, Kerry said that the latter has militantly rejected negotiating, although the Russian foreign minister had told him that Assad could step down when the time was right.

According to these sources, Khatib feels that if the SNC misses Kerry’s signals, then other opposition factions may rush to seize the opportunity. This is especially valid considering reports that confirm opposition activist Michel Kilo had met with Brahimi in Paris a few days ago, conveying to him his grievances over both of the parties to the conflict in Syria.

Kilo told Brahimi that he had a proposal for a solution based on a transitional political process, which would consist of: a UN Security Council statement supporting the democratic transition in Syria and an expansion of the Coalition to include secular factions – a US condition for providing political and financial aid to the SNC.

The next few days may provide answers to these questions. Indeed, what will emerge after the dust raised by Khatib’s statement settles?

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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