The recent Moscow peace conference on Syria lacked the fanfare of Geneva II from last year. Just like Geneva, the aim was to gather Western-backed Syrian opposition-in-exile members and government officials to discuss a “diplomatic solution” to the ongoing crisis. Unlike Geneva, Moscow was not an exercise in wishful thinking – it was a clear demonstration of the current reality in Syria. A reality where the so-called Syrian opposition is no longer of any significance, and where the government holds all the cards.
It is not surprising that the conference received very little coverage from international media. A political solution to Syria’s conflict is now simply in the realm of fiction. This was essentially a protocol event designed to check the vitality of all actors involved and the amount of diplomatic backing each one of them receives. The Turkish-based Syrian National Coalition was the one to appear as the most isolated of all anti-government groups not only due to its refusal to participate, but also because its Western and Gulf donors more or less signalled that the SNC is now on its own. The unelected group that was once bizarrely touted as a “sole legitimate representative” of the Syrian people is now finally sinking into irrelevance, and that’s a good thing.
A loosely-defined “Syrian opposition” has been conceptualised since the beginning of the conflict. Western and Gulf nations viewed it as a tool for regime change that would steer the country in a desirable direction, much like the Libyan example and its Transitional National Council. Until recently, all policy making of the anti-Assad parties circled around the insistence of the “Assad must go” slogan, implying that someone else, supposedly legitimate, needs to take his place.
The initial Syrian National Council was the umbrella group that represented this vision and it eventually grew into a Syrian National Coalition. It was invited to a variety of self-sufficient international events where donors from Europe, North America and the Middle East pledged financial and diplomatic support. The Arab League even expelled the Syrian government representative and gave the seat to this group. In the discourse surrounding the conflict, the SNC’s presence was always evoked by Western and Gulf states as a symbol of the need for change in the country’s governance.
But despite the enormous efforts and financial injections of its foreign backers, the SNC was a spectacular failure. It was a stillborn project whose members were not democratically elected, but hand-picked. Only a handful of them had actual political experience in Syria proper. It had no political programme and its sole desire was to oust President Bashar al-Assad and take hold of the country. A few religious minority members and slogans of a democratic future for Syria were thrown into the mixture to create a semblance of a broadly representative, diverse, liberal group and earn the support of idealistic or ignorant Western observers.
The body found itself in a baffling situation where a number of countries recognised it while insurgents on the ground shunned it. A crippling blow came when bitter divisions between pro-Qatar and pro-Saudi SNC factions came under the spotlight in 2014, exposing the vested interests behind the whole “revolution” project. When Salih Muslim, leader of the powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), attended the Moscow conference, the death sentence of the SNC was pronounced. It was carried out in February 2015, when UN envoy to Syria Steffan de Mistura said that the solution to the conflict in Syria involves President Assad. That way, the SNC ceased to be a hurdle in the discourse on Syria and the way was paved for more adequate diplomatic interaction.
Approaching the endgame
Undoubtedly the cornerstone of the Syrian conflict has gradually shifted from the scattered Gulf-funded insurgency to the self-styled Islamic State. Its appearance in territories outside Syrian government control is a testimony to the failure of both the SNC and the insurgents to mount any kind of coherent political goal or management institutions even on a local level. The recent brutal executions of Japanese, American and British citizens, as well as a Jordanian Air Force pilot, ratcheted up calls for increased international military action against the group. A sense of urgency and need to act with resolute force now prevails.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration pledged to train “moderate rebels” with Turkish and Saudi help and use them as a proxy ground force against ISIS. Considering the lack of “moderate” presence near any ISIS-held areas, the proposal appears a nuisance – its idea is only to demonstrate a commitment to some kind of soft regime change in Syria which would benefit Washington and its regional allies. But the SNC is no longer the player in question. The Syrian government, which carries out the bulk of ground combat operations against the militants, is purposefully left out of the picture.
But with the SNC fading away and the insurgents’ military capabilities dwindling, the Syrian Army and affiliated paramilitary groups will increasingly be considered credible allies against ISIS. Horrible as they may be, the executions of foreign prisoners pale in comparison to the massacres that have been carried out by the group in both Syria and Iraq. As a result, both of these countries have a much greater motivation – and a greater capacity – to engage the militants directly on the ground than anyone else. The Syrian government is now in a position to vastly improve its international standing and erase what remains of the SNC’s influence abroad.
A fortunate outcome
Losing the Syrian National Coalition from sight in the general picture of the conflict could only be beneficial for Syria itself. The first reason is that the possibility for credible, forced regime change from outside has been significantly reduced. A nightmarish vision of Syria descending into Libya-style chaos under various “liberation brigades” and subsequently being enveloped by ISIS terror would have been the unfortunate end of the SNC. This is now very far from reality.
The insurgency has undoubtedly been defeated on numerous fronts by the Syrian military, who have reduced its presence to Aleppo, the extreme south-west of Syria, Idlib and Eastern Ghouta. But without a political figurehead, however dysfunctional it may have been, the insurgents have lost all political relevance and have become a non-communicable party. It is not surprising that their Free Syrian Army umbrella has also silently perished and been replaced by a variety of fragmented councils, fronts and revolutionary brigades.
The second and broader benefit is that the SNC tale marks the end of the “revolutionary” narrative in Middle Eastern politics. Every attempt at armed rebellion will now be viewed upon with suspicion. Meanwhile, the resilient Syrian government can only be seen as a political victor capable of surviving and responding an onslaught that only three years ago encompassed almost all of Syria. But Damascus should now aggravate its offensives on the diplomatic and military fronts. It holds the key to conclude a wide regional conflict, and should not miss the opportunity to use it.