Secretary of State John Kerry and other top international diplomats were just sitting down to dinner in Istanbul after a long day of talks on the war in Syria when the then-leader of the main Syrian opposition coalition decided to make his stand.
Ahmed Moaz Khatib rose before the dinner guests – members of the so-called Friends of Syria group – and declared that he couldn’t eat because all he could see was the blood of his compatriots, according to diplomats who were present as well as his own account of that evening in April 2013.
Khatib accused the deal makers in the room of selling out Syrians’ fight against the government of President Bashar Assad. He resigned on the spot and stormed out of the dining hall, dealing one more blow – a big one – to the Obama administration’s search for reliable partners in the conflict.
“Kerry said, ‘These people are not serious,’” recalled a Western diplomat who witnessed the scene and who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “He said, ‘I’m done.’ He was just done with them.”
That assessment hasn’t changed much in the more than two years since. So this time, as many of those same stakeholders gathered in Vienna, Austria, on Friday for a new round of talks on a blueprint for political transition, the Syrian opposition wasn’t even invited. The State Department’s list of attendees included the United States, the European Union, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Turkey, Lebanon – even Iran. But the most conspicuous absence was Syrian. Neither the Assad government nor the opposition was invited, officials said.
Leaving out opposition leaders and their ironclad preconditions that Assad must go was the only way to save Vienna from the fate of previous failed talks in Geneva, analysts and diplomats explained. But the decision also exposed the Achilles heel of the whole endeavor: Who would implement any eventual agreement hatched at the summit?
We all recognize that it won’t be successful, it won’t be enduring, it won’t be sustainable, if the opposition groups aren’t represented.
John Kirby, State Department spokesman
“Nation states like to talk about this conflict like it’s something a bunch of gentlemen can sit down and reach a rational agreement over and then the players on the ground will just do as they’re told. Obviously, it’s not that simple,” said Faysal Itani, a Syria specialist with the Washington-based Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
The exiled political opposition leaders lack constituents and credibility but provide an internationally acceptable veneer. The guys with guns – the militias backed by Western and regional powers – have more on-the-ground legitimacy, but they are wary of betrayal by their patrons and are nowhere near a consensus about what sort of deal, if any, they’d support.
Then there’s the wild card of groups such as Ahrar al Sham, fundamentalist Islamists wrestling with internal divisions over whether to sign onto the international process or get lumped in with the jihadist outsiders – the Islamic State and al Qaida’s Nusra Front.
“We all recognize that it won’t be successful, it won’t be enduring, it won’t be sustainable, if the opposition groups aren’t represented, their voices aren’t heard, and their perspectives aren’t taken into account,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Thursday at a briefing. “I just don’t think we’re at that stage right now.”
Already burned by unfulfilled promises of their backers, dissidents and rebels are now furious over being sidelined from a summit on their own nation’s future. The opposition coalition has released a flurry of statements underlining its rejection of any plan that leaves Bashar Assad in power for even a day of any future transition phase – a potentially big snag given that most other actors now agree in principle to Assad staying on for a fixed period of time as long as his exit is guaranteed in the end.
“We’ve been making every effort to reassure them – this is not the end game, don’t torpedo this before it’s even started, we’re not moving beyond the Geneva communique,” said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak about the rift with opposition figures. “We’re telling them, ‘Let’s see what Russia and Iran bring to the table, let’s see if they’re serious, we’ll put them to the test.’”
Members of the Syrian Opposition Coalition weren’t available for comment.
The embarrassing dinner party episode in 2013 was the culmination of two years of abortive attempts by the United States and its allies to build a Syrian opposition bloc that would represent the uprising against Assad on an international stage. Washington wanted a force that was capable enough to juggle the competing interests of Western and Arab backers of the rebellion, credible enough to win the support of ordinary Syrians, and cohesive enough to face the regime in eventual talks toward a political resolution of the war.
The Obama administration was less clear on what it did not want the opposition coalition to be: a transitional governing body that would rule on an interim basis should Assad be removed. Obama and his top advisers were determined not to repeat the mistakes of Iraq, where Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party was dismantled overnight, collapsing all mechanisms of the state and creating legions of disaffected, unemployed men who would go on to form the backbone of the insurgency. Many of the same men, intelligence officials and diplomats say, went on to fight alongside al Qaida in Iraq and, now, the Islamic State.
On Syria, the administration’s hope was that Assad could exit in a way that left a rump regime intact – there was never a desire for the opposition and Arab allies’ goal of full regime collapse, according to interviews with current and former U.S. policymakers, some of whom were interviewed on the record and others who requested anonymity because the matter involves sensitive diplomatic and security matters.
To have included them at this stage would’ve meant that the thing would’ve never happened or collapsed immediately.
Faysal Itani, Atlantic Council
“I don’t think anybody ever had the illusion that the Syrian opposition would actually lead Syria,” said one of the administration’s early Syria policy architects. “There cannot be an opposition government because that would be antithetical to the goal of preserving the state.”
Policymakers insisted that this message was conveyed directly to opposition leaders, though it’s easy to see why confusion over this point persists. Since Year One of the conflict, the United States has taken action that suggests support for the idea of an opposition body succeeding Assad, even though President Barack Obama said as far back as 2011 that he wasn’t prepared to recognize the dissidents as “some sort of government in exile.”
As with many examples throughout the Syrian conflict, the president’s own bureaucracy worked to undermine decisions that he’d hoped would keep the United States far removed from the murky, open-ended civil war. Interviews and White House leaks from the beginning made clear that Obama didn’t want to arm the rebels, didn’t want to throw in too deeply with the political opposition and didn’t want a full dismantling of the Assad regime – he didn’t want the United States “to own” the conflict, former advisers explained.
But that firm noninterventionist stance appeared to soften as the war ground on and Obama’s Syria advisers pushed for greater U.S. involvement, resulting in a confused, often ad hoc policy that’s indecipherable to Americans as well as Syrians.
The United States is among at least 20 nations that recognizes the opposition coalition as “the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” Washington also leaned on Middle Eastern partners to deal with the group; in 2013 the coalition was granted Syria’s seat in the Arab League. And France, a chief Western partner in the conflict, unequivocally declared the bloc the “future interim government of democratic Syria” and called on all European nations to follow suit.
The mission statement of the coalition calls for replacing not only Assad but “its symbols and pillars of support” and “dismantling the security services” – goals that sound identical to the doomed de-Baathification project in Iraq.
That’s why excluding opposition figures at this stage is what Itani, of the Atlantic Council, called “the right thing to do” from a purely pragmatic standpoint. With four years of unchecked bloodshed, he and other analysts said, it’s time to hash out a more realistic plan for what a transitional government might look like. The dream of the Syrian opposition coalition moving in as interim authority has evaporated.
“To have included them at this stage would’ve meant that the thing would’ve never happened or collapsed immediately,” Itani said. “It’s humiliating, of course, but this whole Vienna thing is a test.”