In Syria, Moscow’s Terrorist Is Washington’s Freedom Fighter

The United States, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are at odds over which Syrian fighters they'll be able to shoot as terrorists — and which will be labeled moderates.

Foreign Minister of Russia Sergey Lavrov (L) and US Secretary of State John Kerry  hold a news conference after a UN Security Council meeting on Syria at the United Nations in New York on December 18, 2015. The UN Security Council on Friday unanimously adopted a resolution endorsing a peace process to end the nearly five-year war in Syria.  AFP PHOTO/ TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP / TIMOTHY A. CLARY        (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
Foreign Minister of Russia Sergey Lavrov (L) and US Secretary of State John Kerry hold a news conference after a UN Security Council meeting on Syria at the United Nations in New York on December 18, 2015. The UN Security Council on Friday unanimously adopted a resolution endorsing a peace process to end the nearly five-year war in Syria. AFP PHOTO/ TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP / TIMOTHY A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

An international campaign to exclude militant groups in Syria from participating in U.N.-sponsored peace talks descended into something of a diplomatic brawl last week, with Iran’s top diplomat threatening to push for the CIA to be designated a terrorist organization after a rival country’s government recommended that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps be given the same label, according to several U.N.-based diplomats.

The dispute — which erupted Friday during closed-door, high-level talks over Syria at the Lotte New York Palace hotel — is unlikely to result in either organization actually being classified as terrorists. But it underscored the challenges that U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration and other key powers are facing in their attempt to choose among the whopping 167 groups that stand accused of terrorism by at least one member of the 17-nation International Syria Support Group (ISSG), which is managing international efforts to end Syria’s nearly five-year-long civil war. It’s unclear which government was pushing to label the Revolutionary Guards as terrorists, a designation that would exclude groups from political talks and make them legitimate military targets.

The United States and Britain advocate postponing indefinitely what they see as an intractable terrorism debate and instead pressing ahead on U.N.-led efforts to cobble together a slate of political opposition groups that can participate in political talks next month in Geneva aimed at uniting Syria. “We have wasted a lot of discussion on something we knew wouldn’t have consensus,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told the group of senior diplomats at the high-level meeting at the New York Palace, according to an official who attended the talks.

In November, the ISSG assigned Jordan’s foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, the unenviable task of figuring out who in Syria’s bloody civil war should be labeled a terrorist. The initiative was advocated most forcefully by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who has sought to block some of Syria’s most powerful anti-Assad forces from participating in the talks on the grounds that they are terrorists. Lavrov told reporters at a joint news conference with Kerry late Friday that only the so-called “patriotic opposition” should be invited to participate in the talks. The talks, he added, should exclude “those who disseminate extremist and terrorist ideas.”

The United States favors a big-tent approach to political talks that would allow some controversial armed Islamist factions — though not the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front — into the process as long as they didn’t sabotage it. Kerry tried to steer Friday’s discussion away from the focus on the terrorist list, telling his colleagues and counterparts that it would be counterproductive to hold the talks on Syria’s future hostage to a stalemated terrorism debate. “He didn’t want to eat up valuable time on something when he knew they were not going to reach agreement,” according to a U.S. official. “But he doesn’t think it’s a waste of time. He knows it’s a key part of what needs to get resolved later.”

In the end, Jordan’s foreign minister failed to secure broad support for listing any groups besides the Islamic State — also called as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh — and al-Nusra Front, which are already designated terrorist organizations by the U.N. Security Council. At Friday’s meeting, Judeh presented foreign ministers with copies of a preliminary list that was to form the basis for discussions among the members of the Syria support group. The list included groups ranging from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other allies of the Syrian government to the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as well as an assortment of Islamist groups, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, that are taking the fight to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, immediately took the floor, angrily warning that if the discussion on Syrian terrorism was turning into an Iran-bashing exercise, he was prepared to come up with his own list. The Central Intelligence Agency would sit at the top of it, he said. “Zarif was shocked,” said a participant who attended the meeting. Zarif’s outburst was first reported in the Arabic-language Al Hayat. Foreign Policy uncovered new details about the exchange through interviews with participants who attended the meeting and other officials briefed on the talks.

The U.S. official characterized the Iranian diplomat’s remark as a “sarcastic comment, which was not taken as a serious proposal. It was a result of his indignation at the IRGC being on that list, and his argument was that as this is a government institution we might as well put the CIA on the list.”

But Zarif was not the only one complaining. Top diplomats from Lebanon and Iraq followed suit, protesting the listing of the Lebanese political party linked to the country’s parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berri, as well as militias, including Asaib Ahl al-Haq, with ties to the Iranian Quds Force and the Iraqi government. Lavrov, meanwhile, insisted that groups fighting Russian forces in Syria, including Jaish al-Islam, be added to the list of terrorists.

In the end, Judeh sought to restore order to the meeting, telling the assembled dignitaries to set aside the debate over the controversial terrorist list and return the copies he had handed out. “What was clear was that there is very little consensus on what constitutes a terrorist organization,” according to a U.N.-based diplomat present at the meeting.

“Everyone agreed on Jabhat al-Nusra and Daesh, yes. But after that, very little consensus,” added a senior U.N.-based diplomat. “I got the sense that [Zarif] was making a point for the Mullahs back home.”

“I think what you are going to end up seeing is a very narrow slice of groups that are defined as terrorists and left outside the process, with a much larger degree of groups who basically can be in or out of the process depending solely on their behavior,” said a second U.S. official.

The Free Syrian Army, which is backed by the United States and other key outside powers, is likely to face little opposition to participating in the talks.

“Then there’s a bunch of gray groups,” the second U.S official said, citing Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, two armed Islamist factions that are among the most effective anti-Assad fighting forces in Syria. But they have also worked closely with some of the most notorious extremist groups, including al-Nusra Front, which formed an anti-government coalition alongside Ahrar al-Sham and other Islamist factions.

In recent months, Ahrar al-Sham has downplayed its links to al-Nusra Front, and it portrayed itself as moderate in an op-ed article in the Washington Post.

The group — which receives political and financial backing from Turkey and Qatar — claims to have launched an attack against the Islamic State near Marea on the outskirts of Aleppo, according to a report by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadi activities.

Iran and Russia maintain that Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam — a Saudi-backed militia that Moscow has accused of attacking the Russian Embassy in Damascus — are both terrorists groups. “The Russians clearly want them in the terrorist group. And others have a different view.”

But Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar have made the case that the two Islamist groups are among the most effective fighters confronting the Syrian regime, which is responsible for killing the vast majority of the more than 250,000 people who have died in Syria’s civil war since the regime launched a violent crackdown on peaceful protests in early 2011, setting the stage for what has turned out to be the region’s bloodiest civil war. In a succession of speeches on Friday, the three governments urged other governments not to forget Assad’s role in fomenting violence.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, meanwhile, suggested during Friday’s session that the Security Council, which already has a process for designating terrorist organizations, take the lead in identifying which groups can participate and which can’t.

The 15-nation council has already designated as terrorists two Syrian-based extremists groups, the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front, which represents al Qaeda in Syria. The process for adding new names is time-consuming and requires the approval of all 15 Security Council members.

Hammond also proposed establishing a working group comprising a smaller number of ISSG members that would establish a set of criteria that participants in the Syrian political process would have to abide by or face the prospect of U.N. sanctions or designation on the U.N. Security Council’s terrorist list. This way, said one Security Council diplomat, the “U.N. can impose sanctions on those who oppose the peace process.”

The dispute has left Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy for Syria political talks, with the task of assembling a coalition of opposition groups that will participate in talks, including armed factions that are bitterly opposed by influential governments.

Turkey has threatened to pull out of the peace process if the Kurdish group YPG participates in the talks. Lavrov has made clear that Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, which Moscow has accused of attacking the Russian Embassy in Damascus, should be barred from the process. Russia has also insisted that the Turkmen militia responsible for killing two Russian pilots whose plane was shot down by Turkey also be excluded. Syria, meanwhile, has refused to agree to talk with the most powerful armed groups, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam.

De Mistura is trying to convince the Syrian president, who has previously expressed an interest in negotiating with the armed groups, of the need to talk with enemies on the ground that have the power to ensure that any future cease-fire agreement is respected. So far, the Syrian government has been willing only to negotiate with such groups on local cease-fires, not to engage in broader talks on a political transition.

De Mistura is hoping to open the session with proximity talks in which the Syrian government and opposition representatives would hold discussions with the U.N. mediator but not engage in face-to-face talks. If things progressed well, they could potentially talk directly to one another. The envoy is telling the key Syrian parties, as well as their foreign backers, that neither side should have the right to veto individuals on the other side of the table and that there can be no preconditions.

One Security Council diplomat said the debate over who is a terrorist and who isn’t may be “never ending.”

“Those who are prepared to take part and support the political process should not be listed as terrorists,” the diplomat added. And those who “don’t respect the political process or cease-fire should be considered in due course as to whether they should be listed [as terrorists] or sanctioned.”

The Syria support group, meanwhile, has put aside its sharp differences over the fate of Assad in Syria’s political transition. Syrian opposition groups meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, this month insisted that Assad step down at the start of a political transition. But Iran and Russia, which are providing military support to Assad’s government, have insisted that only the Syrians themselves can decide.

Last week, Reuters news agency cited a senior Iranian official indicating that Tehran may be easing its opposition to a political settlement that requires Assad to step down from power.

U.S. officials say they see signs that Iran and Russia are paying a high price for ensuring Assad’s hold on power, but they are skeptical that Iran is prepared to break with a crucial ally.

“While [the Iranians] and the Russians probably achieved their preliminary objective of preventing the regime collapsing … I don’t think either the Russians or the Iranians are optimistic that Assad can win,” the the second U.S. official said. “He may not lose, but he also can’t take his country back.”

“One thing that may be affecting Iranian calculations over time is that the Iranians are bleeding pretty badly in Syria,” the official added, noting that Iran has suffered more casualties in Syria since October than during the entire war up to that point. “It’s not a cost-free enterprise for them. Now whether that will be enough to shift their calculations we’ll have to see. My guess is, if they shift it would come pretty late in the game.”

“I think the Iranians continue to say, ‘Look, we’re not married to Assad, but whatever happens has to be agreed to by the Syrian people, not imposed from the outside,’” the official added. “And they continue to say, ‘If not Assad, who?’”

Foreign Policys chief national security reporter, Dan De Luce, contributed to this report.

Photo credit: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images


Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch