Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has long vowed to negotiate with the Syrian opposition to end his country’s civil war. But on Sunday, he made perfectly clear which rebels he deems worthy to negotiate: Almost none of them. The determination bodes poorly for U.S. and Russian efforts to hold a peace conference between both sides in Geneva by November.
In an interview with Italy’s Rai News 24, Assad ruled out talks with any al-Qaeda-aligned groups, which have become some of the most lethal and well-organized foes of the regime. "We cannot discuss with al-Qaeda offshoots and organizations that are affiliated with al-Qaeda," said Assad.
While the exclusion of extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant may not come as a surprise, he didn’t just draw the line there. In an interview with Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen TV, Syria’s foreign minister rejected any negotiations with the Western-backed opposition group Syrian National Coalition due to its support for a U.S. military strike. "[The SNC] is not popular in Syria and lost a lot among Syrians when it called on the U.S. to attack Syria militarily, meaning that it called for attacking the Syrian people," said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem. He noted that there are other members of the opposition that should be represented at the talks "but not the coalition."
That begs the question, what groups is he talking about?
"Assad is precluding almost all interlocutors with these sweeping preconditions," Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University, tells The Cable. "He has named the select groups that he believes are the appropriate opposition, which are seen to be stooges of his government by much of the opposition."
Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a Syrian opposition group not affiliated with either the SNC or Al Qaeda.
The only group that Washington Institute fellow Aaron Zelin could think of is the Syrian Islamic Front, which would never become party to talks with Assad anyway. "It doesn’t have a foot in the Supreme Military Council like other Islamists or Salafis nor is it in al Qaeda or a front for it," he told The Cable. "But they have no interests in negotiations."
The fear is that Assad — emboldened by his chemical weapons deal with the U.S. and Russia — is erecting more barriers to a political settlement that would ultimately remove him from power. "What he’s doing is delaying and putting up obstacles to negotiations," a senior congressional aide familiar with the Syrian opposition tells The Cable. "This is just an attempt to defuse the whole process."
Meanwhile, at the United Nations General Assembly, Moallem continued his campaign to discredit the rebels on Monday, accusing them of eating human hearts and dismembering live bodies.
"There are innocent civilians whose heads are put on the grill just because they violate the extremist ideology and deviant views of al-Qaeda," Moallem said. "In Syria … there are murderers who dismember human bodies into pieces while still alive and send their limbs to their families, just because those citizens are defending a unified and secular Syria."
The message is clear: The Assad regime is the only thing standing in the way of a radical Islamic state in Syria run by al Qaeda-linked groups. And that’s a problem for Secretary of State John Kerry, who is now facing tough questions about how he can forge a political solution that removes Assad from power while relying on Assad to comply with U.N. weapons inspectors. "This process has legitimized Assad and ensured that we will do nothing to expedite his removal," opined the congressional aide. "It’s likely to go and and on and on."
But Kerry, in an interview with 60 Minutes, acknowledged that ridding Syria of chemical weapons is only one important step in the crisis, not the final goal. "I agree with you, 100,000 people it’s beyond a human tragedy," Kerry said, speaking of the war’s escalating casualties. "There will be more. There’ll be another 100,000 if we don’t work to bring people to the table and try to get a peaceful resolution."
Experts say that type of resolution looks increasingly bleak. "A negotiated settlement is impossible at this juncture from either side," said Zelin. "There is no incentive. Both sides believe they are winning and think it is an existential crisis. Further, outside actors such as Gulf states and Iran believe they are fighting a wider proxy war."
Others who want to see all sides come to the table in Geneva say Assad isn’t the only one to blame here. "It must be said that the U.S. government is beginning from a similarly narrow position," said Landis. "Its insistence that the SNC be the sole opposition interlocutor and representative at Geneva is silly."
"We have seen most of the strong fighting groups in Syria reject the SNC, General Salim Idriss and the SMC over last two weeks," he continued. "What is more, the SNC says it will only engage in dialogue with the regime, once Assad has agreed to step down and his men have agreed to a transition government being established once the talks have concluded."
In any event, few see any chance for a peaceful resolution until the various factions with the most guns on the ground come together and talk. But as of right now, neither Assad, the primary militia commanders nor the al Qaeda linked groups are prepared to do that.