The Syrian opposition called today for a transitional governing body to oversee a U.N.-monitored ceasefire across Syria and expel foreign fighters, in a paper that avoided any mention of President Bashar al-Assad, Reuters reports:
The confidential paper, seen by Reuters, lays out a vision of post-conflict Syria with all ethnic groups participating in a transition process aimed at restoring peace and stability. Opposition and diplomatic sources said it deliberately does not refer to Assad, in line with a text agreed by world powers in June 2012 which calls for a transitional body with full executive authority, including over the security apparatus and the army, but which leaves the Syrian ruler’s fate open.
“I think that the opposition has come to the obvious conclusion that the best way to deal with Assad is to avoid mentioning him,” one Middle Eastern diplomat said.
In its “statement of basic principles,” it called for the establishment of a transitional governing body, with full executive powers, which would be the only legal representative of the Syrian people until elections could be held. It also said that the body would work to ensure the withdrawal of foreign fighters from the country and end violence.
The transitional authority will be “the only legitimate body that represents the sovereignty and independence of the Syrian state and is the only one that represents the Syrian state internationally”, the paper said.
Asked why the document did not go into the fate of Assad, the opposition’s chief negotiator, Hadi al-Bahra, told Reuters:
“We can no longer talk about one person as the sole embodiment of Syria. We deliberately presented a legal paper. Anyone who reads it will realize that a political transition will be the foundation for a new democratic future.”
Despite an evacuation of civilians from Homs, there has been no visible progress on the issue for which the conference was officially convened: negotiating a “transitional governing body” able to move Syria from rule by Assad and his family toward a more inclusive and internally stable political system, writes Thomas Pierret, a lecturer in contemporary Islam at the University of Edinburgh and the author of Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution.
“Loyalist forces are not fit for reestablishing order and security in regions now controlled by the opposition, even after a ceasefire, Pierret writes for Carnegie Europe:
In those regions, the new security architecture must primarily rely on rebel forces themselves. This means that some form of logistical support for opposition forces will be necessary before, during, and after a peace process if these forces are to effectively provide law and order, contain extreme elements of the insurgency, and sustain a peace deal. And this, too, means that any peace agreement will have to address the most fundamental grievances of the Syrian opposition—namely, it will have to achieve a political transition away from today’s minoritarian and exclusionary power structure and give the opposition a real stake in Syria’s future order.
This week there were signs that the jihadist al-Nusra group was taking sides by joining non-jihadi fighters against ISIS and chasing it out of an oil-rich region, analyst Borzou Daragahi writes for the FT:
As shaky talks meant to hammer out Syria’s future resume in Geneva, the greatest puzzle of the civil war may be al-Nusra. It is perhaps the most effective of the armed groups opposed to Mr Assad, but one described by western officials as among the most dangerous.
Over its two years in existence, the group has pulled off increasingly complex operations, employing explosives-laden vehicles and suicide bombers with often devastating results. It has also found sources of international and local funding, and tapped into global networks to draw fresh fighters into its ranks. Despite joining the battle late, it has become a spearhead of the revolution. … Most important, it has managed to do what few other jihadi groups have achieved: win over a large number of civilians, even some of those who vehemently disagree with its extremist ideology.
“Almost all the major battles won by [the rebels] were led by Jabhat al-Nusra fighters,” says Pieter Van Ostaeyen, a Belgian historian and Arabist who closely tracks the conflict. “They were always or almost always on the front line, whether by suicide attack, car bombings or frontal attacks. The other guys just come in to clean up the mess afterwards.”
It is popular despite evidence of human rights abuses, including summary executions of alleged regime supporters and the imposition of harsh Islamic mores on women.
“Of all the groups on the hardline end of the rebellion, Jabhat al-Nusra has played the most pragmatic political game,” says Charles Lister, a Syria specialist at the Brookings Doha Centre. “That’s contributed to the situation where they’re an al-Qaeda group but also among rebel groups and among some sections of the political opposition. Most rebel groups on the ground either support or accept Jabhat al-Nusra’s role in the fight.”
The group also claims to be establishing sustainable forms of governance in liberated areas.
“We started with eight fighters and now can talk about entire liberated regions, destroyed airports and high-security headquarters,” a man described as Mr Golani said in an hour-long December 18 interview with Al Jazeera.
“We actually have legislative bodies that take care of a lot of things like the judiciary system and public services. They [the legislative bodies] also manage electrical power and oil facilities, and recently we started managing oilfields that we took back from the regime,” he said.
“Ever since the break with Isis, Jabhat al-Nusra has become more sensitive to environmental circumstances than Baghdadi is,” says Kirk Sowell, founder of Uticensis, a risk management firm based in Jordan. “Jabhat al-Nusra has tried to work with the Islamist wing of the opposition, especially the Islamic Front, and sort of left the secularists alone.”
“Al-Nusra will always be al-Qaeda but we can’t forget that most of the Nusra men in the rank and file aren’t Qaeda-spirited fighters,” says Cedric Labrousse, a French researcher monitoring the Syrian conflict. “Many are forgetting today the huge waves of Free Syrian Army men coming to Nusra for guns and money for their families.”
Despite al-Nusra’s extreme ideology and frequently ruthless violence, Mr Lister from the Brookings Doha Centre says Mr Golani demonstrates an evolution in the tactics and rhetoric of jihadi groups that have failed because of their inability to win sustained levels of popular support. Even as more moderate rebels take on Isis, few believe an attack on al-Nusra could fellow. Mr Lister says that the possibility of foreign fighters going back home and fighting cannot be counted out.
But he adds: “Ever since they emerged in Syria, they [al-Nusra] have shown zero sign of carrying out attacks beyond Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The real fear is the fact that an al-Qaeda group has managed to attain such strong and mass popular support on the ground.”