In fact, by going, they would do the opposite. This is especially important before the world shifts its attention away from Syria. It is worth repeating, again and again, that the opposition is not conceding defeat but rather opening another front on the regime, but this time through politics. This does not mean that this option is without dangers, as there are many, but in the absence of a “Libya” option, the opposition needs to present a united front and not leave the political arena free for Assad to define and shape as he pleases.
There is a golden rule in politics: “Be there.” This comes to mind as one sees the wrangling of the opposition. In 1950 the U.N. Security Council was able to push UNSC Resolution 83 asking the members of the U.N. to provide the Republic of Korea with all the assistance necessary to repel an attack by North Korea. The Soviet Union, much to its everlasting regret, was not present when this vote took place because it was boycotting the Security Council meetings at the time. Joseph Stalin had been unhappy with the fact that Communist China (a rival of the Soviet Union) was given a security council seat rather than Taiwan. Russia has never repeated this mistake, and the Syrian opposition should take note, especially when we see the differences between life in North and South Korea today.
At the moment the hawks in the Syrian opposition, and perhaps more vitally the coordinating committees and various militias on the ground, all believe that negotiations at Geneva should be about the Assad regime agreeing to hand over power voluntarily. That will not be the case and never will be. If the regime ever agrees to hand over power before negotiations, then it has already lost, and if it has already lost then there is no need for negotiations. This is a circular argument, and what we need is clear thinking. Assad wishes to go to Geneva to stall for time politically, gain much needed international credibility, and try and corner the opposition by giving them the rope to hang themselves. We know that the Assad regime has decades of experience negotiating and jockeying its way through the Arab-Israeli peace process as well as the Byzantine politics of the region. The opposition, sadly, is made up largely of political amateurs.
In the aftermath of Oslo, and with expectations of Syrian-Israeli talks over the occupied Golan heights higher than ever, Shimon Peres was once asked about the then anticipated talks between Syria and Israel over the occupied Golan Heights. His response was brief and brilliant: “The Syrians will ask for the Golan Heights back, and we will say no. Then the negotiations will begin.” Assad is going to follow precisely this strategy, and he will want the opposition and the coordination committees and rebels to stumble over their own mistakes. He is counting on that. But this is where a paradigm shift is necessary. Geneva II is not now or ever has been about political concessions with the regime. It is a hostage negotiation, and this is how we must see it. At every level concessions must be wrangled out, held onto and stored in the opposition’s arsenal.
For example, there is no reason why the opposition cannot put talk of “disarming” the rebels on a separate agenda. After all, the right of the Syrian people to defend themselves is sacred, and since Assad refuses to step down, then they can and should bring attention instead to the abysmal human rights abuses taking place in the country, and push for a referral of the country to the International Criminal Court. The onus then will be on Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies to justify why this won’t happen. This is likely only a small rhetorical blow for the opposition, but they could also demand that an agreement be reached on alleviating the suffering of civilians in the worst afflicted areas by providing humanitarian corridors for vital medical supplies and personnel as well as food and water. Again, the onus is on the regime to explain why it does not want medical assistance and food supplies to reach Syrian civilians.
Furthermore, the Assad regime cannot handle peaceful protest movements, and it cannot offer free and fair elections without destroying itself in the process. If this hypocrisy can be exposed, and Assad is forced to concede ground to points that cannot be refused under any credible reason – even by Russia and Iran, then that is a start. The long-suffering Syrian people deserve that we investigate every opportunity. This process is also crucial because it withdraws the oxygen from groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The big fear is that the controversy over the proposed Geneva II talks could tear the frail Syrian opposition apart. Certainly, if no agreement can be reached on attending, then the opposition would do best to not attend at all rather than splinter, but an internal dialogue is urgently needed. And as there is no foreign assistance coming in the foreseeable future, other ways of attacking the regime’s weak points must be considered in tandem before time runs out.
Historically, Syrian nationalists did not wait for France to guarantee withdrawal of its troops from Syria before negotiating, but the Paris negotiations of 1936 set the stage for Syrian independence and placed additional pressure on France to act. All members of the opposition should note that the revolution against Assad has today as its symbol the same flag that was one of the fruits of Syria’s hard-won independence, and it came about as a direct result of what the Syrian nationalists managed to win through negotiations. By representing Syria at the Geneva II talks, they honour this memory and the tragic sacrifices of so many Syrians.