With peace talks all but pronounced dead and the Free Syrian Army on its heels, there can be no more illusions about reaching a negotiated political solution with Bashar al-Assad’s regime under the current conditions, according to the chief negotiator for the Syrian Opposition Coalition.
Hadi Al Bahra represented the SOC, which the United States has deemed “the legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” at two rounds of confrontational meetings between civilian opposition leaders and regime representatives in Geneva, organized by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Those talks were so unproductive that there is no way the SOC, or UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi for that matter, will return to Geneva again until or unless the regime drastically changes its approach, which isn’t likely.
“You cannot hold a third round before you have a delegation of the regime ready to discuss the agenda seriously,” Al Bahra told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview in Washington.
The regime’s plan to hold presidential elections in May including Assad would end any chance of further negotiations, he added.
“This would kill the Geneva process itself,” he said. “Brahimi shares this position… The State Department shares with us and Brahimi that position.”
Al Bahra also rejected statements by U.S. officials, including former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, claiming that infighting and disorganization within the opposition is to blame for Assad potentially staying in power for years to come.
Top U.S. officials, including Kerry, have now publicly acknowledged that Assad may not step down, as President Obama called for two years ago. “Whether they win, don’t win, they can’t regain legitimacy,” Kerry said about the Assad leadership.
Ford, who recently departed as U.S. ambassador, last week directly blamed the Syrian opposition for the fact that Bashar al-Assad is still in power and acknowledged the Syrian president probably isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
“It is hard to imagine that Assad is going in the short term, and even in the medium term, to lose control of the area between Aleppo south to Damascus and then over to the coast,” Ford said at the Wilson Center. “First and foremost, [the Syrian opposition] has been very unsuccessful at explaining an agenda that would not threaten the communities that are the pillars of support for the regime, first and foremost the Alawite community.”
Al Bahra said Ford was looking for someone to blame for a failure of the international community to fulfill its goal of removing Assad from power.
“The Syrian people are not professional at revolutions. There is a learning curve. The good news is we are putting solutions to whatever problems we have,” he said. “Ambassador Ford did his best to serve the interests first of the U.S. and then the Syrian people. He regrets that he left President Assad still in power.”
Ford’s finger-pointing at the opposition for Syria’s woes also evoked an angry response from many Syria observers, including former Obama administration officials who worked on Syria and have now had more time than Ford to reflect on U.S. policy there.
“Indeed, a key element in explaining and justifying the wide gap between official U.S. rhetoric and inaction with regard to Syria is to blame the opposition for Assad’s survival,” wrote former State Department official Fred Hof in response to Ford’s remarks. “Blaming the opposition is indeed an alternative to making the journey. But it is not worthy of a great country.”
Al Bahra admitted that the military campaign was not going well, but insisted that the revolution was primarily a political and human-rights effort that will outlast any military victories by the Assad regime.
“You cannot put an end to a revolution of this type [by military means],” he said. “Maybe it’s set back now but it’s an ongoing process. But even if [Assad] controls all the land of Syria, the revolution is still in the minds and the hearts of the people.”
Al Bahra said that the U.S. reluctance to increase lethal aid to the FSA is encouraging all the wrong trends in Syria and could ultimately lead to the strengthening of extremist groups that aspire to strike in other countries.
The U.S. is running a small program to assist the Syrian rebels with lethal assistance but it’s just not enough, considering that the Free Syrian Army is now fighting on two fronts, both against the regime and against extremist groups including the Al-Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
“Now you have a chance to assist the FSA. Otherwise, this problem will go out of control. For sure, you will find it in your backyard, and at that time you will be forced to fight it and you will pay for it with the blood of your sons and daughters,” he said.
Al Bahra touted recent developments in the FSA, including more centralized command and military court structures, but he declined to say how many troops the FSA actually controls, placing the number “in the tens of thousands.” U.S. officials have said that internal chaos inside the FSA since the sacking of Supreme Military Council Chief Gen. Salem Idriss are harming the U.S. ability to increase aid to these rebels.
Al Bahra was in the U.S. to meet with Brahimi and other officials to review Brahimi’s report to the UN Security Council. While in Washington, Al Bahra met with White House and State Department officials, including new Special Envoy for Syria Daniel Rubenstein. He also attended a March 15 rally and event organized by a group of Syrian-American opposition organizations. At that event, State Department official Mark Ward defended the American policy on Syria and insisted that the U.S. humanitarian aid was robust.
Ward also admitted that large portions of international humanitarian aid are coordinated with the regime and said that people in regime-controlled areas were also in need of assistance. This angered the crowd of opposition activists, who drowned out Ward’s remarks with chants of “No Fly Zone, No Fly Zone.”
Rep. Elliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was celebrated at the event for his support of the Syrian opposition and he unveiled new legislation he coauthored with committee Chairman Ed Royce that would increase opposition aid. Engel won over the crowd by declaring, “For the record, I am for a no-fly zone.”