The Syrian opposition is seeking to persuade the Obama administration that it has made progress in reorganizing and unifying its political structure and clearing its military ranks of extremist fighters and now deserves more intensive American assistance.
Hadi Bahra, the opposition’s chief negotiator in the Geneva peace process that broke down last month, met with White House officials last week after a panel discussion at USIP that considered the future of the beleaguered effort to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In three years of war that followed a once-peaceful revolutionary movement, more than 140,000 people have been killed, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which bases its count on reports from inside of Syria. António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, estimated during a recent appearance at USIP that more than 3 million Syrians have fled the country and that 6.5 million are displaced inside of Syria.
The indigenous Free Syrian Army has suffered severe setbacks in recent months as Assad’s forces have resorted to dropping barrel bombs from aircraft and to tactics that forestall humanitarian aid to starve out communities that won’t surrender. The Assad regime argues it only wants to prevent humanitarian aid from reaching armed fighters, but the effect has extended to civilians.
The opposition, Bahra said, is effectively fighting on two fronts--Assad’s forces and extremist groups such as the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) that oppose the president but have hijacked the indigenous Free Syrian Army’s operations in some instances. The links have tarred the Syrian rebel forces with the brush of extremism, holding up the delivery of additional military aid that the United States had been considering.
“We have decided since three months ago to fight against the terrorist groups,” Bahra told an audience at USIP during the March 18 meeting. “Since then, our war against terrorists and terrorism has been widened. Unfortunately, the U.S. government and our allies in the region stayed at the same level of military assistance.”
“This put a lot of strain and pressure on the Free Syrian Army,” Bahra said.
Bahra argued that the United States and others have a direct interest in stepping up military aid because Syria could become a training ground for terrorists who go on to wage attacks in the broader region and possibly Europe and even the United States.
“Now, as America, you have two choices,” Bahra said. “Either you support us seriously to combat these terrorist organizations, and we put an end to them, or you will find them [in] your backyard here and then you will have to pay this price out of the blood of your own sons and daughters. We are partners in this fight.”
Politically, the Syrian opposition is trying to fortify its divided ranks. It’s reorganizing its structures, trying to move more of its operations inside the country and establishing mechanisms for governance and delivery of services in areas it controls, said Abdulahad Astepho, a member of the Syrian National Coalition who also served in the delegation to the Geneva talks. He represents the Assyrian Democratic Organization in the coalition.
The opposition also seeks to make itself more self-sufficient and less susceptible to regional and international influences, both he and Bahra said, though they weren’t specific as to how.
“The general impression, coming out of Geneva, is that the coalition performed very effectively, in particular relative to expectations,” said Steven Heydemann, USIP’s vice president for the Center for Applied Research in Conflict. “It was unclear whether the coalition would hang together. It did so.”
Bahra, who also serves as the secretary of the political committee of the Syrian National Coalition, said the opposition has learned from its three-year revolution. Hassan Hachimi, a member of the coalition and head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political office, said the opposition is slowly making a transition from a revolutionary movement to a “state-building mentality.”
“The biggest help the coalition will need in the coming few weeks and months will be to prove and perform their role as an official representative of the people and an official servant of the people as well,” Hachimi told the USIP audience.
Bahra said he doesn’t see any point in resuming negotiations in Geneva “without serious commitment from the international community, if the regime doesn’t feel that there is an international will for using serious action and taking considerable, serious and legal consequences if [Assad] doesn’t go.”
Even during the talks, Assad’s forces tripled the number of air attacks on the historic city of Aleppo, Bahra noted. And the bombardments with barrels filled with explosives, nails and other materials escalated to the point that people on the ground nicknamed them “Geneva barrels,” he said.
“The regime sent a clear message to the people – you want Geneva? This is Geneva,” Bahra said. “The international community stood helpless.”
Viola Gienger is a senior writer at USIP.