The Syrian Opposition’s Political Demands
Key Takeaway: The ongoing Vienna process will likely fail to end the Syrian Civil War because it does not provide adequate incentives to Syria’s powerful armed opposition factions to lay down arms. The Vienna process relies on agreements made between international powerbrokers independent from the demands of both pro- and anti-regime Syrian factions. No single Syrian opposition group is able to speak for a majority of the Syrian armed opposition, and powerbrokers have the potential to spoil the Vienna process. This chart highlights the political demands made by the various elements of the Syrian opposition in order to show the kinds of endstates they seek, the frictions that will emerge should they or others negotiate within the Vienna framework, and the range of issues that effective negotiations must ultimately address.
Most Syrian opposition groups agree on a broad set of terms contained in the Geneva Communiqué of 2012, the product of United Nations-mediated negotiations between the U.S., Russia, Turkey, and other world and regional powers. Although this document remains important, the terms it contains are no longer sufficient for many in the Syrian armed opposition after three additional years of war. Many armed opposition groups oppose future negotiations under the Geneva framework because the Geneva document did not guarantee the demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad leave office before the creation of a transitional government. The failure of the internationally mediated Geneva II negotiations held in January 2014 demonstrated this impasse.
The Vienna talks incorrectly assume that the Geneva Communiqué remains a sufficient framework for future negotiations between pro- and anti-regime elements. The Vienna process consequently continues to leave Assad’s fate to a later date, and in fact has specified elections while he is in power as a basis for constituting a transitional government.
Regional actors are trying to unite elements of the Syrian armed and political opposition into a coherent block to attend negotiations with the regime in January 2016. This effort seeks to create a unified political platform in order to reduce the internal divisions within the opposition that jeopardize successful negotiations. Saudi Arabia hosted a conference of over 100 opposition representatives in Riyadh from December 8-10. The delegations signed an outcome document detailing the position of the new opposition bloc regarding negotiations with the Assad regime. The document reiterated the longstanding rebel demand that Assad and his closest advisors leave power at the start of any transitional period – foreclosing the option of elections while Assad remains in power – and announced the need for a “democratic mechanism through a pluralistic regime that represents all sectors of the Syrian people.” The representatives then agreed on the formation of a “High Committee for Negotiations” consisting of 30 individuals who will in turn select representatives from both the armed and exiled political opposition to participate in the actual negotiations with Syrian government representatives in January. These opposition representatives reportedly elected former Syrian Prime Minister and high-level regime defector Riad Hijab to lead the negotiating committee.
The Riyadh outcome document is an important step forward, but it is a qualified success. The opposition delegation only included representatives from 10 armed groups, of which only 3 are actual power brokers on the ground. The limited representation of powerful-armed groups at the Riyadh conference will ultimately limit its success, as the implementation of any wider ceasefire must be agreed upon and implemented by the guarantors of security inside rebel-held Syria. One powerbroker, the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement (HASI), more commonly known as “Ahrar al-Sham,” withdrew from the conference due to a disagreement with other factions, including an overrepresentation of Syrian political opposition group which Ahrar al-Sham regards as “sympathetic” to the regime. Ahrar al-Sham also cited the failure to “affirm the identity of our Muslim people” as reason for its withdrawal, demonstrating its religious agenda. A second powerbroker, Jaysh al-Islam, also threatened to withdraw, citing the failure of the outcome document to identify Syria as an “Islamic Arab” nation and its lack of demands for comprehensive security service reform. A Russian airstrike killed Jaysh al-Islam’s leader, Zahran Alloush, on December 25, and it is too soon to tell what course his successor, Abu Hammam Essam al-Buwaydhani, will pursue. Regardless, the early fractures within the Riyadh conference demonstrate that uniting the political platforms of the Syrian armed and political opposition remains a considerable challenge.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry dismissed the Riyadh outcome document on December 15, stating that it does not represent a starting position for the Syrian opposition in talks with the regime because it did not conform to “the basis of the Geneva communiqué.” These statements were met with harsh criticism from the Syrian opposition. Riad Hijab stated that the Syrian opposition would make “no concession” on the participation of Assad in a transition period.
The charts on the following page demonstrate pre-existing differences in the political demands made by Syria’s political opposition, by a powerful Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated umbrella group, and by powerful but hardline Ahrar al-Sham, as well as the gaps between the demands of either or both groups and the Geneva and Vienna frameworks. The following gaps are notable, and will likely widen if the Vienna Process fails:
- Representation of the armed opposition: Core disagreements exist between the political and armed opposition. The most important gap is the question of who legitimately represents the Syrian population and the armed opposition. The exiled political opposition, the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), calls for its associated Supreme Military Command (SMC) to lead the armed opposition’s role during any transition period. The armed opposition in Syria, however, rejects the authority of the SMC, as its leadership is based outside of Syria.
- Character of future Syrian state: The SOC, FSA, and Ahrar al-Sham agree on the desire for a unified, independent, and sovereign Syrian state. The character of this state, however, is the subject of much debate. Ahrar al-Sham, desires an Islamic state in Syria. As such, Ahrar al-Sham is against the establishment of a democratic and pluralistic Syrian state pursued by the SOC and the FSA. Ahrar al-Sham will only permit an electoral process to select candidates responsible for ensuring the implementation of Sharia law, although “voting on the sovereignty of sharia” is unacceptable.
- The future Syrian judiciary: In accordance with disagreements regarding the character of a future Syrian state, Salafi-jihadist and Salafist groups pursue a post-Assad state ruled by Sharia law, and likely desire a Sharia court-based structure rather than a municipal system. The character of the future Syrian judiciary is not specified by most of the rest of the Syrian opposition; most groups merely call for a future judiciary to be independent from any future head of state. This ambiguity leaves space for those hardline, armed opposition elements with a determined vision for a Sharia-based future judiciary in Syria to shape future judicial structures.
- Full destruction of the regime: Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and other allied jihadist elements such as Jund al-Aqsa and Hizb al-Tahrir rejected the Riyadh conference and denied the possibility of any truce or political settlement with the Syrian regime. These groups maintain maximalist demands, including the full destruction of the Syrian regime and all of its institutions. JN’s leader Abu Muhammad al-Joulani accused those groups that were in attendance at Riyadh of committing “treason” and suggested they do not possess “the ability to implement things on the ground.” JN also held at least one demonstration against the Riyadh conference in Northwestern Syria.
The U.S. must support nationalistic elements of the opposition that desire a unified, independent, and sovereign Syrian state based on a municipal political system, while marginalizing those that desire the creation an Islamic state based on Salafi principles. Those groups that desire the latter currently possess the capability to spoil any future negotiated settlement, and the U.S. must therefore look towards the Syrian opposition more broadly to find a way to contain these irreconcilable elements. A great power settlement, without the approval of some of the most powerful elements on the ground, will only protract the Syrian conflict and radicalize the opposition further.
By Genevieve Casagrande with Jennifer Cafarella
 The prospect of a unified political platform for the opposition appears to have operationalized an internal seam within HASI, as conflicting reports indicate that some members of HASI’s political delegation signed the joint statement of guiding principles. Most importantly, the lack of approval from high-ranking Ahrar al-Sham members active inside Syria indicates that the organization as a whole does not support the agreed upon principles and will likely reject any agreement resulting from future talks.