By Ashok K Singh
One man’s terrorist versus another man’s freedom fighter. Moderate, ‘secular’ groups pitted against Islamists. Does it ring a familiar bell?
India has battled the diabolical perception war over 'your terrorists versus my freedom fighters', 'secular versus Islamists' for decades in the Kashmir valley scarred by Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. In another corner of the world, the debate over who are ‘terrorists’ and who are moderates, who are secular and who are Islamists has bedeviled the road to Syria peace talks in Geneva. Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey sparred for months debating the inclusion or exclusion of armed groups fighting in Syria from talks.
The reason: The frontline armed groups fighting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad are considered freedom fighters by Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners are viewed as terrorists by the Russians and Iranians. The pro-Assad forces are dubbed ‘terrorists’ by the Saudis and partners.
In the run-up to the selection of groups, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was insisting on the two largest and militarily most powerful groups, Jaish Al-Islam and Ahrar Al-Islam, being kept out of the talks describing them as ‘terrorist organisations.” Russia had blamed Jaish for the attack on the Russian Embassy in Damascus some months ago. Later, the Jaish Al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush — the most notable rebel leader — was killed in a Russian air strike. Alloush had raised a powerful army of 20,000 and was camping on the outskirts of Damascus to seize the Syrian capital once Assad fell.
After protracted negotiations, Jaish Al-Islam and Ahrar Al-Islam joined the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) — a body of 40 groups — which was formed at a meeting in Riyadh, to represent the main Syrian opposition at the talks. But the Russians continued to oppose their inclusion. The HNC has entered into negotiations with UN Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura in Geneva.
The Russian foreign minister had also insisted on inclusion of what he called 'secular' opposition groups and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). The Kurds have been in forefront of the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. What Lavrov had meant was that the Assad regime, though dictatorial, represents an inclusive Syrian population, while the pro-Saudi groups fighting Assad, are pushing to impose their sectarian agenda on Syria.
Turkey has threatened to withdraw support to the talks if the PYD was included.
Turkey links PYD to the PKK, the Kurdish militant rebels based in Turkey and Iraq, who have been fighting for self-determination for the Kurds, and dubs the PKK a “terrorist organisation”. So much so that when IS attacked the Kurdish town of Kobane on the Syria-Turkey border, Turkey refused to let the Peshmergah, the Kurdish forces of Iraq, enter through its border to fight the IS. After much international outcry and persuasion, Turkey allowed a limited number of Peshmergah to enter Kobane that led to the key border town being protected and saved the Kurdish population from being massacred by the IS. Turkey had its way in keeping out the PYD from Geneva talks.
Even after the Syria government and opposition groups have reached Geneva, the proximity talks (the groups will sit in different rooms while de Mistura will shuttle between them during the talks) are proving to be a non-starter. The HNC is insisting on the Assad government to lift the siege on towns and provide humanitarian access to the area under opposition’s control as a pre-condition for talks to start.
In the Syrian war, there are well over 100 major heavily armed groups. Some groups, such as Jaish Al-Islam and Ahrar Al-Islam, are proclaimed Islamists who want to push their sectarian, political and religious agenda in post-Assad Syria. Some armed militia have no such sectarian biases while some major armed outfits such as the Shiite Hezbollah are fighting on the side of Assad. The Islamic State and Al-Nusra Front (Al-Qaeda-affiliated) are the extremists among the extremists.
Who is fighting who on the ground is a quagmire.
Some fronts are fighting together to fight Assad; some are fighting against each other to fight Assad and some are claiming to fight the Islamic State. Or let’s put it this way: The Islamic State is fighting them. The battleground is deadly, chaotic and messy. The Geneva peace talks are set to be as messy, chaotic and uncertain as the battleground in Syria.
Whether opposition or pro-regime, the forces gathered in Syria for talks have one thing in common. They have their strings being pulled by major powers from outside Syria. Regional powers Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran have their proxies on the ground doing their bidding in hope to secure a more favourable result and to have a finger in every pie in the post-Assad Syria. Syria doesn’t have much oil and gas. But a victory in Syria will determine a crucial battle in the war over West Asia between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The proximity talks are all about proxy talks.
As the UN envoy and mediator has gathered the warring sides in Geneva, the battles on the ground have intensified. The Syrian army assisted by Iran and Russia has notched several crucial victories in the last week capturing strategic towns in setback for the rebels. The see-saw battle between the Russian and Saudi-US-Turkey proxies will continue as talks progress or falter as no side is yet in a position to give knockout punch.
The proximity talks are set to last six months if they start. On the ground, the proxies and their masters are working overtime to get as much battle mileage as they can as a bargaining chip for the talks as well its outcome.
The writer is a journalist and commentator