Will there be any ‘good’ Syrian rebels left to provide credible representation at the January United States – Russia sponsored Geneva II peace conference?
The U.S. favored rebel group, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), experienced major setbacks in December. On the first, the Syrian Arab Army killed a key FSA commander in Daraa Province in southern Syria. On the eighth, ”the top Western-backed rebel commander in Syria,” General Salim Idris, head of the FSA, fled Syria after an Al Qaeda aligned rebel faction took over FSA weapons warehouses north of Aleppo near the Syria-Turkey border. On December 15, an Al Qaeda affiliated rebel group killed another FSA regional commander in a town near Aleppo.
General Idris ended up in Doha, Qatar. The United States is urging him to return to his command in Syria.
As a result of the weapons warehouse falling into the hands of Islamist Syrian rebels, the U.S. announced the suspension of nonlethal aid to northern Syria.
The brought complaints from FSA fighters and an admission from Syrian war effort supporter John McCain (R-AZ) that ” parts of the northern Syrian border have been taken over by the al-Nusra and other extremist Islamist groups.”
Without the FSA as a clearly viable fighting unit, the long delayed negotiations in Geneva will be a showcase for a failed U.S. policy. What viability can FSA have if its leader, General Idris, is camped out in a luxury hotel in Qatar?
FSA rebels are the only major rebel military force without Islamist jihadist ties. The other major fighting forces, the Saudi backed Islamist Front and the Al Qaeda affiliates (Al Nusra and ISIL), are radical Islamist jihadists. The presence of these groups at Geneva II, with their history of attacks on minorities and their program of strict Sharia Law in Syria, would cause a political disaster for the Obama administration, as well as, Syrian war enablers British PM David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande.
Saudis ask Putin for a favor
Antoine Ghattas Saab of the Beirut based Daily Star reported that the Saudis are seeking support from Russian President Vladimir Putin to maximize Saudi benefits from the Geneva II conference.
“At this point, Bandar cited the Saudi conditions for the success of the Geneva II conference, at the forefront of which is Iran’s nonparticipation in the peace talks in order to prevent Tehran from exploiting its nuclear agreement with the West to bolster its position in support of the Syrian regime, the report said.
“The second Saudi condition, according to the report, is to extend the period for preparations for the Geneva II conference because Saudi Arabia believes that it can improve its negotiating position with the Syrian regime through military successes by the armed factions it directly supports, which are fighting on two fronts: The Syrian Army on the one hand, and hard-line jihadists from the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) on the other.” Daily Star, Dec 16
Since the Obama administration called off the attack on Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the al-Assad government, the Saudis have behaved erratically. The kingdom turned down a seat on the United Nations Security Council and instructed diplomats to pursue a lower profile with the United States. Prince Bandar bin Sultan even threatened to raise and command a 50,000 man Saudi expeditionary force to fight in Syria and Yemen.
The Saudis are probably going to the wrong source for help. Putin has been a steadfast supporter of the Syrian government. Why would that change as victory moves from possibility to probability?
The first specific Saudi request represent a wish fulfillment, namely the idea that a few more weeks or months would allow Saudi backed rebel forces, the Islamist Front, to defeat the rebel factions with the best fighting record, Al Nusra and ISIL The second request, keeping Iran out of the Geneva Conference, seems far fetched given the close relationship between Russia and Iran.
On December 3, The Independent reported that the FSA’s General Salim Idris raised a FSA negotiating option for Geneva II. Under certain conditions, the FSA would join with the Syrian Arab Army after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fulfilled a hypothesized agreement to leave power. The two forces would then rid Syria of all Islamist jihadist fighters.
If the position of the FSA deteriorates any more in the days ahead, a brand new FSA move could involve joining forces with the Syrian government before the Geneva meeting. The FSA goal could be simple survival.
In that case, the end result would be a negotiating table with the Syrian government and the U.S. backed rebels on one side and the Saudi backed Islamist Front on the other. Stranger things have happened lately but not much stranger than this extrapolation.