Where Do Activists Stand between the American Strike and the Russian Initiative?

By Salem Nassif

Some opposition activists regard Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s initiative to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis, which followed the chemical weapon attack in Ghouta, as an opportunity to come to a solution that will at least lessen the suffering and death of Syrians. Others see the initiative as nothing more than yet another attempt to give the regime more time, allowing it to continue on the same violent path it has followed since the start of the uprising – a path whose motto can be summarized by the slogan “Al-Assad or we burn the country.”

A banner held during a demonstration in Homs late August. Credit: "Lens Young Homsi" page on Facebook
A banner held during a demonstration in Homs late August. Credit: “Lens Young Homsi” page on Facebook

Rima Fleihan, a member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, believes that by focusing only on the chemical weapons, the Russian initiative disregards the actual crime, and lacks any punishment of those who ordered the massacre of the civilians in Ghouta.

According to Fleihan, if this initiative were truly concerned with the wellbeing of the Syrian people, it should at least refer the case to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The initiative has also ignored other instances of systematic killing by the regime since the first day of the uprising.

“Does the international community only care about the stockpiles of chemical weapons?” Fleihan wondered.

Fleihan believes that this initiative will not change the balance of power on the ground between the government and the opposition – at least not enough to pave the way for political solution.

She says that a political solution will need to include more than just confiscating chemical weapons.

“We must refer all war crimes to the ICC, Bashar al-Assad must step down, and we must sit down in Geneva to negotiate the transitional period and agree on a framework for the transfer of power,” she said. “Before all this, all military operations must stop and prisoners shout be released, the displaced must be allowed to return and we must begin reconstruction under the supervision of the United Nations.”

Anas Jouda is the vice president of the “Movement for State Building,” an opposition group which operates with the approval of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime inside Syria. He says Russia will try its best to guarantee that the initiative will be implemented. However, Jouda, like Fleihan does not trust the regime.

“It will resort to stalling and getting mired in details to gain time,” he said. “What is important now is the resumption of the Geneva [negotiations]. The American strike is behind us now.”

Some Syrians, including members of the opposition, are against relinquishing chemical weapons and consider it a violation of the sovereignty of the state. They prefer to keep the weapons as a deterrent against Israeli aggression. But Saleh al-Nabwani, a member of the opposition umbrella group National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, which also operates inside Syria with the authorization of the Syrian government, suggests that many opposition members who made such statements were only trying to embarrass the regime.

Nabwani says that any military strike will suit the aims of the armed opposition, and believes the road to a viable solution to the crisis is holding the Geneva 2 convention.

“If the Russian initiative is implemented through the Geneva 2 conference, it will be salvation,” he said, adding that he was stating his own opinion and not necessarily that of NCB. “This is what everyone should agree on if we want what is best for Syria, and if we want to stop the bloodshed and the destruction.”

Nabwani says he can’t imagine that the initiative would succeed without international consensus.

Saleh, as well as Anas Jouda, doesn’t believe that chemical weapons would constitute a major element in any battle with Israel. Jouda argues that Israel has a superior military to the Syrian armed forces, especially in light of the recent Israeli strikes on Syrian military positions, which he believes destroyed a significant amount of the regime’s strategic weaponry.

Rima Fleihan does not see a place for chemical weapons in a future Syria. She believes that all nations in the region, including Israel, should relinquish their chemical weapons and ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Syria has become a signatory to the convention since the start of talks with Russia and the United States, in an effort to find a diplomatic solution to the impasse following the chemical weapon attack on Ghouta. The UN inspectors’ report confirmed that sarin gas was delivered through ground to ground missiles launched from regime controlled areas. Such a claim implicitly holds the regime responsible, a conclusion contested by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The United States, the United Kingdom and France are trying to secure a Security Council resolution allowing the use of force against the Syrian government in case it does not relinquish its chemical weapons.