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Syrian opposition

Interview: Ben KnightDecember 12, 2012

Former EU diplomat Marc Pierini sees some progress on resolving the bloody impasse in Syria - as long as the Syrian National Coalition becomes a serious government in exile, and Russia drops its support for Assad.

Members of the Free Syrian Army shout slogans against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while holding a Syrian opposition flag as gunfire is heard, as seen from the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, November 22, 2012. NATO ambassadors met on Wednesday to consider a Turkish request for the deployment of Patriot missiles near its border with Syria as the conflict in its southern neighbour deepens. A Reuters photographer said sporadic gunfire was heard throughout the day at the border. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS CONFLICT MILITARY)
Syrien Free Syrian Army Rebellen Jubel 22.11.2012Image: Reuters

The Friends of Syria group and a number of other countries including the US have officially given their backing to Syria's opposition National Coalition, potentially paving the way for some kind of Syrian regime change.

In the run up to the meeting in Marrakech, the US on Tuesday designated the radical Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, which is suspected of ties to al Qaeda, as a foreign terrorist organization.

This was a counterintuitive but expected step, apparently meant to help build Western support for the rebellion by quelling the fear that money and arms meant for the rebels would flow to a jihadi group.

Marc Pierini, Carnegie Europe visiting scholar and Open Society Forum, Turkey fellow; Copyright: Carnegie Europe***via Nina Haase
Pierini does not understand Russia's positionImage: Carnegie Europe

DW: What do you hope will come out of the meeting in Marrakesh?

Marc Pierini: First we have to say a couple of words about what happened here in Brussels yesterday, when [Syrian opposition leader] Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib was received by the 27 foreign ministers. This is an important step forward. There is no major change in the EU position so far, in the sense that there is still an embargo, no supply of weapons, but there is increasing recognition of Moaz al-Khatib and the national coalition. It was an encouragement to the coalition to act responsibly, get their act together, coordinate with their military and get closer to establishing a government in exile. The national coalition has to establish its international credentials and act as a quasi-government - make sure its positions are well-coordinated and that there are not too many dissenting voices as we've seen in the past few weeks.

Secondly, it will be important to see if over time they manage to administer liberated areas with a civilian administration. This will be an immensely reassuring factor and will help to channel foreign assistance to this region.

What about the US decision to designate Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization? It seems a bit confusing, seeing as they work closely with the Syrian rebels.

It's confusing because the situation on the ground is confused, obviously. If you look at the statements in the past few weeks from the various military outfits that you have in the north of Syria, it is utterly confusing. I think it will take a while before it clarifies. It's not for me to comment on a decision from the US government, but it's typical of revolutions that you have this confusion - in parallel to the military battle you have an ideological battle.

Head of the National Coalition of Forces of the Syrian Revolution and Opposition, Ahmad Mouaz Al-Khatib arrives to a meeting with European foreign affairs ministers in Brussels, Belgium, 10 December 2012. British Foreign Secretary Hague urged other countries on 10 December to follow Britain in fully recognizing the Syrian opposition group led by Mouaz al-Khatib. 'We've given our full recognition to them, we hope that other countries will do so at the Friends of Syria meeting in Marrakesh,' Hague said ahead of talks between EU foreign ministers and al-Khatib in Brussels. EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET
Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib needs to 'assert himself as a leader'Image: picture alliance / dpa

But what's the rationale behind making that decision now?

I would see that as an attempt to clarify the situation and voice the position that the US is not about to talk to this particular militia. They have their own reasons. It's very hard to establish which will be the predominant influence in the national coalition.

Do you think the European countries will follow suit and also label this particular group as terrorists?

I don't know, but I think the Europeans intend to see what the national coalition does and whether al-Khatib asserts himself as a leader, and what kind of statement he makes about fundamental principles - equality of minorities, the role of civil society, transitional justice, that sort of thing is what reassures the Europeans.

Do you think there will be a NATO intervention in Syria eventually?

At this point there is no plan for this. What you see militarily at the moment is the Assad regime losing ground gradually, more slowly than perhaps people had predicted before. But it is losing ground. If you look at the north, the regime is restricted to a few cities and bases that are basically cut off from the rest of the northern territory. Even round Damascus there are major problems for the regime. New weaponry has appeared.

In this Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012 photo, a Free Syrian Army fighter offers evening prayers beside a damaged poster of Syria’s President Bashar Assad during heavy clashes with government forces in Aleppo, Syria. The uprising, which began with peaceful protests against Assad’s regime in March 2011, has escalated into a civil war that has killed more than 40,000 people, according to activists. (Foto:Narciso Contreras/AP/dapd) // Eingestellt von wa
Regime change in Syria seems inevitable, with or without interventionImage: AP

But does the meeting in Marrakesh bring military intervention closer?

I don't think so, because there is an aversion to military intervention. What Western countries have done so far is draw red lines for the Assad regime. One is the Patriot missiles in Turkey, for example, and there were warnings over Jordan and Lebanon. I think it's quite clear to the Syrian regime that any other attempt to export trouble to the neighboring countries would be very seriously countered. But putting missiles in Turkey doesn't mean intervention in Syria, it doesn't even mean a no-fly zone. It's basically a defense against Scud missiles.

Is there any chance of a negotiated regime change?

At this particular point, I would say not until Russia changes its position. The Russian position is very difficult to understand, other than countering what the West is saying. Nobody, certainly not me, can understand why Russia would have an interest in letting the situation deteriorate. Everybody knows that the more the situation deteriorates the more probable an Islamic regime is, and that is not in the interests of anybody in the West or in Russia. At this point there is no hope that the Assad would regain legitimacy with its own people.

There are only two options - a military regime change or a diplomatic regime change. So you think if Russia changes its position it would be an opportunity for the second option?

Well, certainly negotiated evolution is what Russia is advocating, but the problem there is that Moscow has a position of principle not to talk of Assad's departure, which is a non-starter not just for the West, but for the opposition. So that's where we're stuck right now. It is a possibility that you have a mix of the old and the new, like we saw in Tunisia and Egypt. That is conceivable, although you have very few people who do not have blood on their hands in Damascus. But there a few, so that is conceivable.

Marc Pierini is a former European Union diplomat in North Africa and the Middle East and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Europe research institute in Brussels.