Unless the issue of Assad’s future is tackled early on, the Vienna talks will lead nowhere.
World powers, regional players, the Syrian regime, the splintered opposition and even the gangsters of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are positioning themselves, directly or indirectly, for negotiations over the future of the country, in the absence of a unified and credible voice for the forces that started the Syrian revolution.
What is clear is that almost all parties are ready to compromise either Syria’s unity or sovereignty, or both, to further their interests and influence the shape of a new regime – with or without President Bashar al-Assad. What all powers, including Russia, are looking for is a malleable regime and, in the case of the US, one that does not present “a threat to Israel”.
For all external powers, Syria is a “failed state” that can be reconstructed to their own liking, ignoring the demands and aspirations expressed by the Syrian people who rose up against the regime’s oppression and creeping marginalisation of the lower socioeconomic strata.
Vehicles for egoistic leaders
Therefore, it is especially disturbing that the Syrian people, who are paying with their lives, are not adequately represented in either diplomatic efforts or the military campaign; not only is the self-declared Syrian opposition splintered, but most of the factions have become tools for different governments or vehicles for egoistic leaders seeking power positions in Syria’s future.
However, the biggest blow for Syrian aspirations for freedom and justice was the emergence of fanatical groups such as ISIL, and extremist factions such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, which are bent on transforming the struggle into a sectarian conflict between the Sunnis and the ruling Alawite elite.
The ascension of such groups has not only distorted the popular struggle but also boosted the regime’s attempts to delegitimise the uprising, describing its opponents as “terrorists” and posing “as the protector” of Christians and minorities inside Syria and beyond.
Fear of ISIL and its ilk inside Syria, and their targeting of Christians and ethnic minorities, have further complicated the crucial question of representation and legitimacy of the revolution.
Fear of ISIL and its ilk inside Syria, and their targeting of Christians and ethnic minorities, have further complicated the crucial question of representation and legitimacy of the revolution. Unlike in the first months or even the first year of the uprising, there are now Syrians who are ready to live with the tyranny of Assad as the lesser of two evils.
While weighing an oppressive regime against chaos and instability could be understood in psychological and humanistic terms, it does not make the murderous regime a true representative of the Syrians.
Militarisation of the revolution
The fleeing of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who are risking their lives across the tumultuous seas lays the blame first and foremost at the regime’s door, for its initial cruel crackdown on protesters, mostly children, which proved to be the spark that ignited a wider uprising.
It could be reasonably argued that the militarisation of the revolution was a mistake that undermined the political representation of the revolution, as it allowed agenda-driven foreign interventions, giving the regime the upper hand, and blurred the distinction between the revolutionaries and groups such as ISIL and others.
Yet at the same time it is also arguably a predictable result, considering the ferocity of the regime’s reactions. What is important here is that a strong political voice for the revolution was eclipsed by the ensuing explosion of armed violence – confusing a legitimate resistance with pure criminal acts committed by the extremist fanatical factions.
But it was the opposition factions’ apparent loss of independence to one party or another, including agreeing to place their fighters under US sponsorship, which has caused internal frictions, and undercut their popularity inside and outside Syria.
The attitude of most opposition groups served the regime’s propaganda that there was no revolution but “a foreign conspiracy”, denying its own repressive record and, of late, the dire consequences of Iran’s involvement in the turmoil.
For a while, it was understandable that the opposition could not operate in a vacuum and would need to build ties with regional states, especially neighbouring Arab countries. Many of its personalities have become puppets for these regimes to advance their own personal ambitions.
That has not only affected the credibility of the opposition, but it has also impeded the formation of a united front and the formulation of a nationalist agenda away from the influences of Arab regimes, reducing them to pawns in a regional and international struggle over Syria.
The fact is that somewhere along the way, the revolution was hijacked by opportunists, including some Syrian personalities in exile, the corrupt beneficiaries of an avalanche of Western and Arab funding. The revolution was also needlessly complicated by both regional and Western interference.
The Syrian opposition failed to articulate one voice, and succumbed to the influence of one external power or another to the point of near subservience, exploiting the despair of the Syrians, many of whom are yearning to be saved at any price from the regime’s yoke.
The gap between activists “inside Syria” and opposition in exile has also further undermined unity and consensus, making it more difficult to convey a message that could put forward a political programme to the Syrian people and the rest of the world.
While it is wrong to idealise grassroots activists inside Syria, there has not been a concerted effort to restore the voice of the revolutionaries, or to truly pay attention to the legitimate grievances that compelled Syrians to defy a dreadful police state.
As the world has become obsessed with ISIL and a renewed version of the “war on terror“, the narrative is no longer about a revolution but about defeating “terrorism”, thus weakening grassroots activism and enabling the regime to justify its mass killings as it is engaged in a battle to defeat “terrorism”.
Even if some countries, especially Western countries, talk about a transition to a democratic system, we have the foreboding experience of Iraq post US-led invasion that shows how Washington was more interested in pitting Shia and Sunni against each other than state-building.
To save Syria from an already accelerating fragmentation, it is the responsibility of the Syrian opposition to draw up a national salvation strategy that unites the Syrian people and speaks for them, and challenges all relevant parties within the country.
There is little cause to have faith in the outcome of the opposition’s ongoing meeting in Riyadh, as the beginning of the solution lies in the emergence of a unified, credible leadership that brings together both activists within Syria or in exile to raise a unified voice before it is too late – for both the country and its agonised people.
Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.