A sharp uptick in violence across the country over the past week is pushing Syria’s tenuous cease-fire toward collapse, said opposition spokeswoman Bassma Kodmani, widening the divide between opposition and government ahead of renewed peace talks in Geneva set for later this week.
The Assad regime announced Sunday its plans for a new Russian-backed offensive to retake Aleppo, while ground battles between pro-government militias, rebel forces and the Islamic State group raged across the country over the weekend.
As things heat up on the ground, both sides remain entrenched over what U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura has described as the “mother of all issues” – political transition and the future of President Bashar al-Assad. Iranian officials said over the weekend they wouldn’t back a peace process that includes the removal of Assad from power, a key demand of the opposition’s High Negotiations Council (HNC) and a position that Washington has said it supports.
As tensions rise, the HNC’s Bassma Kodmani spoke with Syria Deeply about the increasingly unfavorable climate for negotiations, the potential collapse of the cease-fire and the influence of the cease-fire’s main brokers – Russia and the U.S. – at the negotiating table in Geneva.
Syria Deeply: The HNC has warned that the cessation of hostilities is on the verge of collapse based on the latest developments on the ground. How does this affect the political process? Is the credibility of the talks’ sponsors at stake?
Kodmani: Yes, when we go back to the first visit we made to Geneva in February we went with a clear message that we will not negotiate certain issues … mainly air attacks and barrel bombs that the regime was using. This was not negotiable. These are crimes and they are above negotiations. They are obligations for the regime to settle.
The response from the two main players in the international support group was to call for a cessation of hostilities, not just air attacks but a complete cessation of hostilities. So that’s what the opposition agreed to. It ceased hostilities. As you will recall, almost one hundred groups on the ground agreed, so that political decision from the HNC had influence on the ground in a remarkably effective way, and the regime was respecting it also for a good two weeks I think, but by the third week it was starting to deteriorate.
Now we’re on the eve of the second round of negotiations, and we see that the progress on the humanitarian level has not been sustained. There has even been major regression over the last ten days. Jan Egeland, who leads the task force on humanitarian relief, has said there are some areas we are still unable to reach, and up until now people are dying, either because of starvation or a lack of medication. Humanitarian convoys are more difficult to get through. No humanitarian corridors have been opened. The safe passage of convoys still needs to be negotiated every time … Not one siege has been lifted. The last ten to twelve days has been very discouraging.
Regarding the cessation of hostilities, the regime has resumed air attacks in a very nasty way. They never really stopped entirely, but they have multiplied recently, intensifying attacks in strategic areas. That cessation of hostilities is very fragile and … the climate on the ground is becoming increasingly negative. We are very concerned that it does not offer the right atmosphere for negotiations to take place.
Syria Deeply: On Wednesday last week, U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien said only 30 percent of Syrians living in besieged areas and only 10 percent of Syrians living in hard-to-reach areas have received aid in the past year. One of the main goals of the truce was to enable the delivery of aid to these areas, but it appears that most of these areas remain out of reach. Why is that?
Kodmani: Yes, it’s clear that there’s been a relaxation of pressure on the regime to deliver, so as much as we were impressed by the first achievements of the task forces – especially on the humanitarian side because external pressure was high – the regime has no intent of ceasing [its tactic of] “starve or surrender” or of lifting any sieges.
Humanitarian suffering is another one of the regime’s strategic weapons. We felt that maybe Russia had a different approach here, that it did not condone using humanitarian conditions as a weapon, and that maybe it would sincerely put pressure on the regime on this issue at least. What we are seeing now is that this is happening again and the task force is having to negotiate, again, on each convoy. So our big question becomes: Is Russia supportive of starving people, of sieges, of humanitarian suffering as part of the strategy? … We are at a loss here about Russia’s real position on this.
Syria Deeply: Has the Russian withdrawal impacted the negotiations at all or changed dynamics? Has it added pressure? Is there pressure associated with these sort of military and humanitarian tactics you’re talking about?
Kodmani: Look, there has been no massive Russian withdrawal from Syria. I think the withdrawal is more of a political statement than anything else. Russia has made the judgment that the opposition forces it has targeted for over five months are now decisively weaker because its air attacks have achieved their objective: to cut lines of supply and communication … with the goal of weakening the opposition and putting Assad in control of the negotiations.
On the last days before the cessation of hostilities, the intensity of Russian attacks was quite indicative that it was rushing to achieve those objectives, of cutting lines of communication for the opposition. Once it did that, it announced its withdrawal, but the withdrawal is one that means it will now be part of those pushing and enabling a political process, and meanwhile it has shifted the attacks to target Daesh (ISIS). The objective seems to be once you have weakened the opposition, you can rehabilitate the regime. So it went for the highly symbolic target of Palmyra, and is now basically seeking to set a pattern for those territories that are today controlled by Daesh. The plan is to liberate them from Daesh and transfer them all into the hands of the regime.
So the first strategic objective is very clear. And the second strategic objective now is quite clear as well.
Syria Deeply: Can you put the revival of demonstrations across the country into context? What is the impact? How has it affected the negotiation process?
Kodmani: It clearly reinforces our position that Syrians do not wish to be governed by Assad, and that they will not accept his governance by force. It’s a very powerful message to Russia, more than to Assad, because Assad knows he never ruled with the people’s will. But for the Russians, it’s a clear indication that no matter how much they support him militarily, Assad is not in a position to be an acceptable ruler in Syria. For us, that reinforces the need to move toward a transitional governing authority. The word transition is absolutely key here. We are leaving this political system, if you want to call it a system, for another one.
Syria Deeply: De Mistura has called the political transition “the mother of all issues.” He also praised the HNC for “the depth of your ideas.” Could you speak about his efforts and whether this language is translating into any sort of reality in the negotiation room?
Kodmani: The short answer is no. First of all, we have not had any direct negotiations yet. We’ve been calling for direct negotiations but the regime has been unresponsive. Secondly, as de Mistura said … it all starts with a transitional governing authority, and from there, we can address all the other issues. That is now. We were hoping to go to Geneva, and I think this was de Mistura’s hope as well, that with humanitarian aid reaching different areas, a cessation of hostilities, a cooling down of the situation on the ground and of people’s mood and bringing forward the civilians’ concerns and priorities at the expense of the military groups, that all of this would’ve created the right atmosphere.
I would say here, quoting some people from inside Syria, they say it’s like a snowball when there is one positive development on the ground you gain support for it and the following one creates more support, and with these measures, you develop a constituency for a serious peace process.
But the fact is that until now, the word transition is not used by the regime. The head of the delegation, Ja’afari, has said it is not a part of their vocabulary … The word was only used by Assad when he spoke of transition with a new constitution. He said there will only be a transition from one constitution to another. That is, for us, a play on words. We know that what he means by constitution is a piece of paper that he puts on a shelf and doesn’t really understand. A constitution is a foundation of a new society and a new political system. They don’t even use the word transition and political transition, which tells us that so far, the regime has not clearly stated that it is willing to abide by the international documents of Geneva, and Resolution 2254, the Vienna and Munich statements … All of these documents speak of political transition, but we don’t have a regime statement that says: “we accept these documents as the basis for the peace negotiations.” So we’re still really hanging in the air on the actual commitment of the regime. It is only Moscow who has signed these documents and is therefore committed to them in principle. We will test the commitment of Russia through the pressure it exerts on the regime … so far, that kind of pressure is not visible.
Syria Deeply: What about the role of the United States?
Kodmani: The United States is suffering from an issue of credibility on two levels. One is the kind of commitment John Kerry received from Russia on humanitarian issues and the cessation of hostilities. What is their long-term vision about the fate of Assad? There is ambiguity there. We hear statements from the Americans about how there’s no place for Assad in the future of Syria, but we are already in the negotiation process in which we need to set an agenda for concrete measures to take place. It is not enough to tell us that Assad has no role in the future of Syria. We have a timetable now. We need serious commitments, we need a plan, and we need somebody to tell us when exactly is it possible to envisage the departure of Assad.
The position of the opposition is very clear. It is a negotiation process that does not ask for his departure during the negotiations, but asks for his departure the moment the transition starts because he cannot be part of the transition. That is clearly our position but we don’t have any clear indication of the U.S.’s position. So we are asking for clarifications on that. That’s the first issue.
The second issue is that what we’ve seen on the ground is very dangerous for the process. It may make the whole process insignificant. If the fight against ISIS is led by Russia, who is providing air cover for regime allies, then what is the U.S. saying about rehabilitating Assad and putting his forces in charge in the areas from which Daesh is ejected? Here we have no indication, again, about what the U.S. position is. They must make it clear that there are things that are acceptable and unacceptable to them. What we are seeing is that Russians bomb areas indiscriminately and often kill a lot of civilians.
Their strategy is one of carpet-bombing, which is not what the U.S.-led coalition does, but on the other hand, it (the U.S.) is allowing the Russians to do it and is not protesting … Russia has stepped in to play a lead role because the coalition has been there for more than a year and a half, but we still don’t know about their plan. They kill a leader of Nusra or a leader of Daesh and then what? Are they going to let the Russians carpet bomb Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and allow Hezbollah and regime forces to take over the areas? There is a big question mark on whether the United States is expressing clear demands about the results of the fight against Daesh. These are two tracks, and on both of these tracks, we don’t have any clarity [from the U.S.]. That worries us.
Click here to read Part 2 of the interview.