From hope to doubt, peace sways in Syria

Priority must be given to reaching clear-cut decisions on naming the terrorist groups operating in Syria.

Damascus awaits early implementation of the road map adopted during the November 14 gathering of foreign ministers in Vienna and endorsed by the UN Security Council.

The road map calls for a concerted campaign to fight terrorism, talks between government and opposition delegations on January 1, 2016, formation of a unity authority, adoption of new constitution, and elections in 18 months.

Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad told Deccan Herald that priority must be given to reaching “clear cut decisi-ons” on identifying terrorist gro-ups operating in the country and choosing credible opposition representatives ready to settle the crisis “on a political basis.”

“On the first issue, nothing has been achieved yet. Consult-ations are still going on. On the second, we believe the party that will finally decide on opposition representation is UN (mediator Staffan) de Mistura and team.” This suggests Damascus would accept the team's decisions.

While the road map is regarded in Damascus as a step forward, Mekdad said doubts were raised by the December 8 Saudi conference of Western and Arab-backed expatriate political opposition figures and representatives of armed groups.

He argued that “some parties” are determined to appoint to the opposition team, members of “groups that have...links with al-Qaeda and Daesh (Islamic State or IS),” deemed “terrorists” by the UN and the US.

He gave the example of Ahrar al-Sham, a major jihadi faction invited to Riyadh, which is fighting alongside al-Qaeda's affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra in northern Syria.

He called for a “clear distinction” between terrorist groups and political groups. The government's view from the outset of the crisis has been that anyone who has taken up arms against it is a “terrorist”.

It blames reported deaths of 250,000 people — more than half combatants — and widespread destruction on armed groups and their patrons. “Once (external) support for terrorism ceases, 70 per cent of the crisis will be eliminated and then we (can) sit with Syrians and sort out our problems through national dialogue,” he stated.

Another obstacle to profitable negotiations is the contradictory attitude taken by Washington which claims that the US and its partners are “not seeking regime change...in Syria” while insisting that President Bashar al-Assad should step down.

Mekdad said, “We are accustomed to all these contradictions” and insisted that choosing the Syrian leadership “is the sole responsibility of the Syrian people,” a stand supported by Moscow and Tehran, the government’s close allies.
He flatly denied that Russian support is flagging, citing 4,000 airstrikes carried out since September 30 and the use of long-range missiles fired from the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean. Reports that Iran has withdrawn units of its Revolutionary Guards have been denied by both Syrian and US sources in spite of heavy casualties among men and officers.

United against terrorism

Mekdad praised Russia as the “only power that is fighting terrorism seriously (in the air) and Iran for bolstering Syria’s stretched and undermanned armed forces” and expressed the hope that world powers will form an international coalition to battle against terrorism. “Since terrorism is an international menace to peace and security, we believe all countries in the world should be enlisted (in the struggle) according to their capacity.”

Domestic opposition figure Anas Joudeh backed the road map but criticised its ambiguities, particlarly the failure to create a mechanism to name terrorist groups and the lack of clarity over leadership and elections.

Exiled opposition figures expressed their doubts over the road map while al-Qaeda's Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, rejected it and the Saudi talks. Islamic State (IS) replied by staging bombings in Homs, killing 22 civilians and wounding 104. Nusra and the IS are meant to be excluded from ceasefires and fought by all sides.

A politico-military analyst, resident in Beirut, is not optimistic. He said the road map had only 3-5 per cent of success because the international and regional powers involved in the Syrian war are still jockeying for advantage. Until this competition ceases, the war will go on.

However, Damascus-based economic consultant Nabil Sukkar took the opposite view. “The Russians, Americans and Europeans want to bring this crisis to an end. Nobody wants to be deeply involved in another Afghanistan, Iraq or Ukraine. They fear the terrorists will go home” to their own countries and mount attacks like the November 13 operation in Paris that killed 129.

He thinks talks between the government and opposition will not take place until late January or February and hopes for a transitional authority by mid-year. “We are in a much better position than a few months ago. We are moving towards a settlement of sorts.”

Both sides are under pressure to make concessions. He believes a political deal could be achieved in 2016 and 2017 could be the year reconstruction begins. People in Damascus, Homs and other Syrian cities, meanwhile, are swinging from optimism to pessimism and back on a daily basis.

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