A delegation from Syria’s Popular Front for Change and Liberation opposition movement met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Thursday in what Russia says is part of its efforts to overcome differences between the Middle East country’s multiple opposition groups and facilitate their dialogue with the government.
“Such contacts support the efforts of UN and Arab League envoy [Kofi] Annan,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told journalists in Moscow. “It is difficult to say whether we will be able to unite the opposition, but we are using all opportunities to achieve this.”
In doing so, he said, Russia was trying to promote the idea that the “Syrians alone” should find ways to resolve the crisis that has gripped the country for over a year and led to over 9,000 deaths, according to UN figures,
This resolution of the crisis, he said, should take place without foreign intervention, but with “assistance from those who can influence the [conflicting] Syrian sides.”
Moscow has twice vetoed UN Security Council resolutions over what it called pro-rebel bias since the start of an uprising against the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011, but gave its full backing to Annan’s peace plan.
Qadri Jamil, the Popular Front’s leader, told RIA Novosti on Thursday he believed Russia could “play a major role in bringing together the opinions of various sides – both of the regime and the opposition, as well as of various groups within the opposition, so that they could find common ground.”
The Popular Front, along with the National Coordination Committee (NCC), whose delegation visited Moscow last week, represents Syria’s internal opposition, as opposed to the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council (SNC).
While the SNC has called for foreign military intervention in Syria, the two other groups have been strongly opposed to it, insisting that the conflict has to be resolved without any outside interference.
When asked whether the Popular Front was ready to cooperate with other Syrian opposition groups, Jamil said his group had “one condition” for those willing to begin dialogue: they should agree that outside intervention is “unacceptable.”
“If the Syrian National Council accepts this, then we can talk to them – but not before,” he said.
SNC member Bassam Al-Imadi told RIA Novosti “we are ready to cooperate with everybody, this is not the question; the question is whether this cooperation is going to bring fruit.”
Both al-Imadi and NCC spokesman Abdul Aziz al-Khayr said the Popular Front was in fact very close to the Syrian regime, despite calling themselves an opposition group.
“After all these massacres and killing by the regime, it’s not easy to accept it will go on ruling Syria,” al-Imadi said. “If this opposition moves in the same path as us, we are ok to cooperate with them. But we feel that many of them are only aspiring to get some position within this regime.”
Al-Khayr said, however, that since both the NCC and the Popular Front wanted to “see a democratic regime in Syria,” and since both “reject foreign intervention and the militarization of the uprising,” they could find common ground. Jamil also said his group had “no problems” with the NCC, and that real dialogue between the two internal opposition bodies was only hampered by “technical matters.”
As for the Istanbul-based SNC, Al-Khayr said it was “not united in its political agenda.”
“The SNC consists of too many groups, and each of them is not really in true coordination with the other,” he said. “Some of them depend mostly on Turkey, others on the Gulf States, while a third part depends on France and other Western countries. So it’s not easy to deal with the SNC as a united group.”
However, dialogue was possible with certain groups within the SNC, he said.
“We are interested in cooperating with those who are really careful about social peace within the country and do not view military intervention as the only option,” Al-Khayr said, adding however, that it will “take time” to establish fruitful cooperation.
Russia can assist those efforts, he said.
“Russia is a very important country for Syria, a historical friend which has supported the causes of the Syrian people for quite a long time and in different aspects,” he said. “Russia is now trying to play a very positive role within the Syrian crisis in order to provide a peaceful solution.”
During the NCC’s visit to Moscow last week, Russia “declared its very clear support” for the group’s proposal to organize a conference in Damascus “to unite the internal opposition,” he said.
He also dismissed al-Imadi’s claim that the SNC is the only group that enjoys popular support in Syria, saying that the Istanbul-based opposition “has lost much of its popularity in the last few months because it promised to people so many things, including foreign intervention and a no-fly zone,” but those were “false promises, and they achieved nothing.”
Annan plan’s progress “very slow”
Al-Khayr said the NCC was also ready to negotiate with those representatives of the Syrian regime who are “not bloodstained and corrupt” – but only when major provisions of Annan’s plan are fully implemented.
Syrian and foreign-based rights groups have accused Syrian government troops of summary executions and torture. Damascus says it is fighting “terrorists” and that some 3,000 members of the security forces have been killed in the violence.
“If Annan’s plan is really applied, including a ceasefire, the release of political prisoners, the offer of humanitarian aid, the acceptance to the right of peaceful demonstrations, and if the atmosphere is suitable for negotiation,” he said, “then we are ready to negotiate with them a transitional period and a roadmap on how to move together from dictatorship to the democracy that the Syrian people demand.”
The Annan plan has been backed by all members of the UN Security Council, as well as the Syrian government and opposition groups. However, reports of both numerous violations of the ceasefire, which came into force two weeks ago, and dozens of people killed throughout the country despite the presence of UN monitors, have raised concerns about the effectiveness of the peace effort.
Lukashevich said on Thursday he believed the situation in Syria was gradually improving due to the observers’ efforts.
“The level of violence has already dropped significantly… The situation in Syria is tending toward improvement, though it is a rather fragile trend,” he said. He also expressed hope that the planned dispatch of a 300-strong observer mission to Syria would help to further decrease the violence.
Jamil agreed that Annan’s plan had a positive effect, although both he and Al-Khayr admitted that progress was “very slow.”
“Violence is still going on in many places in the country and the regime is still using military force, as well as some groups in the opposition,” Al-Khayr said. “We know that tens of Syrian are being killed every day here and there and the Annan plan is moving very slowly because the observers are very few until now.”
Meanwhile, al-Imadi, the SNC member, said he believed Annan’s plan “was doomed from the very beginning.”
“We supported the plan, although we know it was not going to succeed because the first two items talk about a ceasefire and withdrawal of all army troops and artillery [from residential areas] and the release of all detainees,” he said. But “we know for sure that the regime is not going to implement these items,” he added.
SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun said in an interview with Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram on Wednesday he hoped Annan’s plan would provide more extensive international support for the revolution in Syria.
“It is not Annan’s plan that will end the Syrian conflict but further peaceful revolution,” he said.