Was this weekend a turning point for peace in Syria?

Published September 11th, 2016 - 04:21 GMT
Members of the HNC meet in London (AFP/Fabrice Coffrini)
Members of the HNC meet in London (AFP/Fabrice Coffrini)

Can meeting between international leaders far from the frontlines be the key to peace in Syria?

Some hope so – but the possibility that a sustainable peace might come from Western conference rooms could be slim.

In the last week, two diplomatic landmarks have been reached for the war-torn country. Yesterday, the US and Russia – leading allies of opposition groups and Assad’s regime, respectively – came to a tentative ceasefire agreement. And last Wednesday, an alliance of more than 30 opposition groups gathered in London, to launch what they hope could one day be a roadmap for the country’s future.  

In the first of the week’s achievements, the High Negotiating Committee (HNC) of Syrian opposition groups announced their own plan for the future of a country without Assad.

The UK government has praised the Road Map, which is an important step for the rebels. There are big questions about the unity and effectiveness (and actual moderation) of moderate groups fighting the regime and the nature of Islamist elements in opposition ranks, so negotiators hoped to present themselves as a real possibility for a secular, democratic Syria.

The plan is in three-phases, working towards what HNC’s coordinator Riad Hijab described as “a political system that protects freedoms, safeguards individual rights, and that is founded upon the principles of liberty, equality, citizenship, and justice”.

The plan requires a six month truce, then the establishment of a Transitional Governing Body to create a new constitution and a caretaker government. Crucially, the document states that this requires “the departure of Bashar Assad and his clique who committed heinous crimes against the Syrian people,” a major point of disagreement for his regime and their supporters. Under the third phase, local, national and presidential elections would be held with the help of the United Nations.

It’s an outlook, but whether it’s realistic depends on many factors.

On the ground, many parties were sceptical about the potential for a breakthrough. In addition to questioning Assad’s commitment to maintaining the ceasefire, supporters of both Assad and the opposition doubted whether the HNC would be seen as a legitimate representation by most Syrians.

“Most Syrians view the HNC as irrelevant due to their almost non-existent influence over armed rebel groups in Syria,” pro-rebel Tweeter Tawfiq Alkeilani, better known as @ShamiRebel, told Al Bawaba. Many Syrians, he added, “refer to them as ‘Rebels of the Hotels’ as a derogatory satirical phrase making fun of their little to no sacrifice in the ongoing revolution.”

On the other hand, the first step to any progress in the Road Map is a pause in the relentless hostilities that are now a part of daily life in Syria. Saturday’s ceasefire agreement between Russia and the US could be key to that.

But what the actual ceasefire agreement means is shrouded in uncertainty. John Kerry said the agreement was based on “mutual interest” rather than trust, and his counterpart Sergei Lavrov warned that other parties would seek to undermine the deal. For its part, the HNC said that the onus was on Russia to pressure Assad to keep up his side of the bargain. Meanwhile, news of civilians casualties in Aleppo continued unabated.

Reactions to the ceasefire agreement were understandably mixed. Some accused it of serving the interests of Russia and the regime.

Others pointed out that Ahrar al-Sham, one of the biggest rebel groups, rejected the ceasefire.

And some made jokes.

It has been a busy, and potentially hopeful last few days for the prospects of Syrian peace.

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