US must do more to force Assad to negotiate, says Syrian opposition leader

Nasr al-Hariri, chief negotiator for Syria’s umbrella opposition group, says without pressure there will be no settlement

The US is showing a new commitment to forcing the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad to make concessions to end the country’s seven-year civil war, but must still do more to persuade Russia to put pressure on Assad to negotiate, the Syrian opposition leader has said.

Nasr al-Hariri, chief negotiator for the Syrian Negotiations Commission, Syria’s umbrella opposition group, said he welcomed the US keeping 2,000 troops inside Syria, so long as it helped bring a political settlement.

He said, however, that the US should also look at sanctions and trade action to force the Syrian regime to negotiate. “The leverage on the regime is the critical issue,” he said. “We saw during the last round of negotiations that the regime is under no pressure to negotiate. They had zero interest in the talks. Without pressure from Russia, the political process will not work.

“If the presence of US troops is a helpful actor in pushing for a political solution, that will be good. All the efforts must be focused on that.”

The US has been criticised for being disengaged from a long-term solution to the conflict in Syria beyond defeating Islamic State. In recent weeks, however, western diplomats believe US agencies have re-engaged on the issue, partly because the US accepts that if Assad is left in power, Iran, with 75,000 Iranian troops and Iranian-led militia fighters in the country, will be strengthened immeasurably.

The SNC compromised last year on Assad’s future by saying it would no longer demand his removal as a precondition of talks, but said it remained an opposition objective. “Can the UN accept people who have accepted war crimes to be candidates for elections? That is a question for the whole world.”

Hariri, who is in London, expressed strong reservations about a US plan to establish a 30,000-strong, largely Syrian-Kurdish border guard in north-west Syria, saying the SNC’s aim was to build a single, unified national army at the point of political transition.

“A large, separate Kurdish force might open the door for a new political struggle in the region,” he said. “Any force based on ethnicity or religion will be harmful to a political solution”.

Although Syrian opposition forces have been driven back over the past year, Hariri denied the SNC was irrelevant, saying Assad still did not control 50% of the country, and predicted he will not make many more territorial gains, despite the current bombardment of Eastern Ghouta and Idlib.

The Syrian opposition has not definitively ruled out attending a Russian-hosted peace conference in the Black Sea resort of Sochi later this month, but said negative messages about the conference suggested Moscow’s plan was to bypass the stalled UN peace process in Geneva.

Talks last week between western powers and the UN led to agreement to entrench the primacy of the Geneva process by holding two separate rounds of talks, one either side of Sochi. The Syrian opposition said this could test whether Russia is sincere when it insists that the Sochi conference is supposed to complement the UN route.

Hariri has been lobbying in Washington, Brussels and London to urge more pressure on Russia to force the Syrian government to hold serious talks at the UN. He said he was told by the US national security adviser, HR McMaster, that Washington strongly opposed any parallel peace process.

“We have been hearing nothing but negative messages about Sochi, including [that] there is no place for anyone that favours the departure of the regime,” he said. “The SNC will discuss what to do about Sochi next week in Riyadh, but the general mood in the opposition is that it is unacceptable [...] Putin wants to show ahead of his election that he has brought peace to Syria.”

Hariri also warned the EU not to think that withholding reconstruction funds for Syria will be sufficient to force Russia or Syria to negotiate. “Assad does not care if the country remains as it is for 30 years. He does not want the refugees to come back. Assad sees reconstruction contracts as a form of punishment,” he said.


Patrick Wintour, Diplomatic Editor

The GuardianTramp

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