Sheikh Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib’s declaration that he is ready to talk to the Assad regime came like a bolt out of the blue. A few days before he travelled to the Munich Security Conference, the Syrian National Coalition leader wrote on his personal Facebook page that talks would be dependent on the release of 160,000 political detainees and the return of passports belonging to opposition members who have been unable to enter their home country. On the same day, the Syrian National Council, which had been the main Syrian opposition until the National Coalition was formed, declared that the leader’s statement did not represent the views of the opposition.
Khatib was originally invited to the Munich conference for a high-ranking meeting with US Vice President Joe Biden. Surprisingly, he also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi – two Assad allies who have excused the massacres perpetrated on the Syrian people. These meetings give Khatib’s words – coordinated with the US – a new dimension: indeed, they are intended to promote a US-Russian plan concerning Syria’s future.
Khatib’s behavior should not have come as a surprise. The coalition he leads was set up in November 2012 in Doha (Qatar), to the dismay of the Syrian National Council which till then had been recognized as the sole representative of the Syrian opposition. The coalition, a US initiative, was renewed after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called to replace the opposition leadership (which she claimed was divided) with people connected to the revolution who are sacrificing themselves in the struggle. The plan was formulated in Jordan, and Riad Seif was chosen to implement it. Seif was a member of the Syrian parliament. He was imprisoned by Assad and escaped to Jordan. The Syrian National Council was compelled to agree to set up the coalition, becoming its main component, but it made its agreement contingent on “not talking with the regime.”
This condition has been violated, of course, because those who initiated the coalition never intended to respect it. For two years the US and its allies did not lift a finger to prevent the massacres, destruction and war crimes carried out by the Syrian regime against its own citizens. They turned three times to the UN Security Council knowing full well that Russia and China would veto any resolution, and they organized conferences which resulted in no tangible assistance. They avoided sending military or humanitarian aid to the opposition, on the pretext that it was divided and that the Free Syria Army is not trustworthy, while Iran and Russia armed the regime and supported it financially.
As a result of the West’s lack of support, the Free Syria Army, composed of military dissenters representing the revolution, lost its influence. Its place was taken by radical Islamic groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which was declared illegal by the US, and al-Tawhid in the Aleppo region. On the other hand, the murder of some 70,000 citizens, the destruction of two million homes and the killing of innocents caused two million refugees to flee and left them without a roof or livelihood. Thus the prophecy fulfilled itself: the Syrian revolution is turning from a popular uprising to a civil war based on ethnicity, in which no side is strong enough to win.
While the US was engineering a coup within the opposition against the National Council, Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa made a statement matching Khatib’s words at Munich. In a long interview on December 17 in the Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar, al-Sharaa said that neither side in the conflict can prevail. In this way common ground was created between the US and Russia, on the one hand, and the regime and opposition on the other. It can be understood thus: If the situation cannot be decided one way or another, and the destruction and killing continue, Al-Qaeda is liable to take over the country – so a solution must be found. Not by chance did Khatib assert that al-Sharaa must head the talks between the sides.
It seems the powers have come to an agreement along the lines of the Yemenite model: Assad must go but the regime will remain. Burhan Ghalioun, who set up and headed the National Council, wrote about this on the website Modern Discussion: “This negotiation between the opposition and the regime aims to find a solution to the crisis. In fact, it is an arrangement between the opposition and regime which cannot but lead to the failure of the revolution.” Ghalioun calls it the “new Oslo Accord” because of its similarity to the Palestinian version, which was intended to put an end to the intifada, was carried out without international surveillance, and ended in a tragedy that perpetuates the Occupation and the settlements to this very day.
Until now, the regime has ignored Khatib’s move. The Syrian paper al-Watancalled it a “maneuver” aimed at “purifying” the opposition from Jabhat al-Nusra support and the destruction it brings to Syria. The regime also knows that Khatib has almost no influence on the rebels, and it’s waiting to see if he can overcome the opposition’s resistance to his declaration. In light of Syrians’ suspicion and rage toward the US, which saw to it that Syria would tailspin into civil war, it is not at all certain that Khatib will survive the anger directed at him by the opposition.
Israel and the Syrian question
Thus we come to the Israeli attack on Syrian soil. The presence of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak at Munich was not accidental, and his declaration that Israel would act to prevent Syrian weapons from falling into Hezbollah hands was not a slip of the tongue. Not by chance did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convene an urgent security meeting on Syria the day after the elections; a few days later Israel attacked and Barak hurried to acknowledge this.
If the Americans and Syrians have indeed reached an agreement on Syria’s future along the lines of “Assad goes and the regime stays put,” the regime’s strategy is still in doubt. Will the alliance with Iran and Hezbollah hold? Or will Syria change course, join the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt, and move closer to America and the West? One thing is certain – Iran and Israel are the two states most anxious about this question. The Israeli attack, carried out with full American approval, was intended to deliver a clear message: whatever the new arrangement in Syria, whether along the lines of the Yemen model or otherwise, it will come at the expense of Iran and its satellites.
US President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel further supports this contention. Iran and Syria are the main issues on the agenda, while the Palestinian issue is mentioned as lip service. The US wants a comprehensive regional settlement, Biden calls for direct talks with Iran over the nuclear issue, Iraq is aflame with revolts in the Sunni regions against Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite regime, and the Syrian question will have enormous implications for the region’s future. The US is negotiating with Russia, but both need strategic coordination with Israel. They need to calm, restrain and promise all sorts of things so that the Israeli rightwing does not run wild.
It seems the US has various plans for turning the Arab Spring to its advantage. However, the events in Egypt and Syria show how difficult it is to tame the millions who have had enough of dictatorship, as well as US capitalism, and long for democracy. The US wants to impose the Muslim Brotherhood on Egypt, Assad’s heirs on Syria and the Oslo Accords on Palestine. It will fail just as it has failed till now. Egypt, Syria and Palestine want freedom and social justice, which Israel and the US are unable to provide. If Israel continues to meddle in Syrian affairs, it will get embroiled in another war, and no Iron Dome will shield it from the terrible consequences.
—Translated by Yonatan Preminger