Opposition delegates arrived in Geneva on Tuesday for the second round of Syria peace talks, but will have to wait until Friday for the government delegation to arrive, as increased violence on the ground and parliamentary elections denounced as a “sham” create an increasingly toxic climate for negotiations.
Pro-government forces launched an offensive Tuesday against militant groups across the country’s north, just hours ahead of parliamentary elections in government-held areas expected to rubber-stamp an assembly loyal to embattled President Bashar al-Assad.
The opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC) has labeled the elections illegitimate, calling the vote “theater for the sake of procrastination.”
The Assad government announced its plans over the weekend for a new Russian-backed offensive to retake the rebel-held areas near Aleppo, an assault that threatens to bring a quick end to the February 27 landmark cease-fire deal.
And as tensions rise on the ground, the political wing of the strongest Kurdish militia announced its intentions to finalize plans within six months for an autonomous federation in the country’s northeast.
Amid the latest chaos, Bassma Kodmani of the HNC spoke to Syria Deeply about the opposition’s stance on the long-demanded release of prisoners, potential mechanisms for transitional justice, the inclusion of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in the Geneva peace talks and the involvement, or lack thereof, of women in opposition institutions.
Click here to read Part 1 of the interview.
Syria Deeply: Has any progress been made on the long-demanded release of prisoners currently held in government detention?
Kodmani: Staffan de Mistura has made the issue of detainees a priority. We have insisted on addressing the issue because we believe it also has a major impact on the psychological context, or the state of mind, of people on the ground. We also know it’s one of the most challenging issues for the regime. We’d like to see a mechanism that specifically addresses the issue of detainees, possibly another task force. A task force is not a magical solution … but maybe that kind of mechanism would be helpful.
The issue of detainees is a very sensitive issue and a very risky one – on two levels. It’s an urgent issue because detainees are dying in prisons every day. Some human rights organizations, human rights lawyers based in Syria, tell us that about 50 people are executed or die in government prisons per week. The figure comes from a serious source, but you should know that this has always been the case in Syria. Even before the revolution, there was one day a week where they executed prisoners. All the former prisoners will tell you about it. It’s still happening now, but at a much higher rate. So there’s an urgency to this issue, first of all, and secondly, there is a risk that when you provide names of prisoners it sometimes plays against the prisoners. It allows the regime to retaliate and to torture specific individuals, so we are really very careful. We know these risks, and we’ve signaled them to the special envoy, but we nonetheless want to put forward a strategy that doesn’t put people at risk, and that starts addressing the issue of peace, brings a halt to the executions and grabs the attention of Russia in particular. Is Russia aware of what is going on in Assad’s prisons and does it condone it? So it’s a question to put to Moscow, first of all.
Then we have to develop a realistic strategy that brings prisoners out of prison knowing that there is not much to negotiate because when we speak of prisoners on two sides we’re speaking of one against 10,000 probably. One with the opposition forces against 10,000 with the regime, so symbolically we can say that there are two sides, but the asymmetry is considerable.
Syria Deeply: What is the HNC’s vision of how transitional justice mechanisms could work best in Syria?
Kodmani: We believe there should be a comprehensive transitional justice program for Syria. The top criminals of the regime should be prosecuted. But we are not saying that anybody who has executed any order is to be prosecuted. I think there is a full understanding, on the opposition side, of the complexity of the Assad system. We see a program that includes the prosecution of key criminals that looks at other mechanisms for transitional justice, including further reconciliation commissions and including isolation law. It [isolation law] is dangerous because it was used abusively in Libya and was used to sideline some important and competent people. We should also be setting clear the criteria for amnesty at a lower level. That I think is acceptable, and of course, reparations and compensations … issues of land will be a never-ending issue to resolve. The confiscation of land, the transfer of populations – all of this requires transitional justice. So it’s not just international criminal courts that can solve our problems. There’s a highly symbolic role for the ICC to play, and we would definitely like to see that role, but we would also like to see the support of international justice institutions to empower the Syrian justice system and enable it to implement transitional justice also on different levels.
Syria Deeply: Where do you stand on the inclusion of the PYD in the peace talks?
Kodmani: First of all, the opposition includes Kurdish political groups and independent figures, so there already is Kurdish representation. It’s actually not a small representation; it’s a very significant part of the Kurdish political spectrum. The PYD, however, is a military force that has been supported by several countries, including Russia. So arms and political and diplomatic support have given the PYD more leverage. I think there are two serious problems with the PYD, which need to be resolved before we can talk about how they should be represented.
One is that they’ve participated in military operations and attacks against the opposition and alongside the regime, so that does not make them a true part of the opposition. Secondly, this declaration of federalism, on the eve of the March round of talks in Geneva, was really a statement by which they were deliberately putting themselves outside of the Syrian national consensus. Together we will define what we mean by decentralization. We will decide what the shape and organization of the country will look like once we have legitimate elected institutions. It’s not up to us to do it now. So on these two levels, the PYD is excluding itself from the national consensus.
It [the PYD] could be within a transitional governing party, yes. That’s when we will have to have Kurdish representation, definitely, and the PYD will have to answer all those big questions that we have [for them], particularly regarding the nature of their declaration on federalism.
Syria Deeply: What is the role of Syrian women, such as yourself, in the institutions of the opposition?
Kodmani: We are fighting. We are fighting our way into those institutions … Representation remains a very big issue. There has been progress in the commitment to involve more women. In our declaration of principles that we handed to de Mistura, it clearly stated that women should be represented at 30 percent. The men signed on to that. It is an achievement on paper, but with it, we can begin demanding more representation because we are a long way off having that 30 percent. But it states that women constitute at least 30 percent of all transitional, and then permanent, institutions in Syria. The opposition has been receptive to the issue, but the position of women is still weak. It needs to be broadened because it represents a major concern.
This isn’t just about political representation, but about the overall approach on how you bring back peace, social reconciliation, reconstruction and the rights of the vulnerable and minority communities. We must include the half of the population who knows what it is to be marginalized. The women are hopefully the ones who can carry these issues. They’re not angels and they may be just as competitive in politics as the men – we’re not being romantic about their role here – but they know what it means to be marginalized and have developed strategies to make their way into politics, so I think they should be carrying this vision about the dangers … how much the legitimacy of institutions is weakened when groups are not represented – in the case, half of the population.
Syria Deeply: To what extent have realities on the ground – whether humanitarian or military – impacted the atmosphere, tone and tactics in Geneva? To what extent have they been used to leverage positions or exert pressure?
Kodmani: I would say that using the humanitarian [access] as a tool and as a weapon, as the regime has done, and blackmailing the international community and the Syrians themselves with food has worked once, but it’s not working now. It worked in 2014 when, due to high tensions, it looked like we would not be able to talk about key issues, so we chose to focus on humanitarian issues. That led to endless discussions with the U.N. brokering the arrival of a few convoys of food and humanitarian aid into some of the besieged areas, but it was never repeated. So it wasn’t like opening a passage that allowed those convoys to go in and out as they pleased.
The second most damaging thing for U.N. credibility was the convoy brokered during the siege of Homs. After very long talks and bargaining and so on, they ended up getting 12 trucks into Homs in exchange for the evacuation of the opposition fighters. The U.N. itself had real concerns about giving legitimacy or credibility to the regime tactic of starvation for surrender. So I think using the humanitarian issue is not working this time, definitely.
What we want to see is if the Russians are in favor of ending the humanitarian problem, again without seeking any political or strategic advantages for the regime in exchange. That’s not clear for us. At the moment, it’s not clear. We thought this was the case and that we had progressed, but we’re not clear about that now.
Your other question was about cessation of hostilities. Yes there is a risk that barrel bombs and new air attacks were used to get a cessation of hostilities and a commitment from the opposition to stop its operations against regime targets, which really gave the regime a break. But the risk here is that without any guarantees, the cease-fire is risky because it reduces the pressure on the regime without forcing it to make any concessions.