In Syria, everyone has a say except Syrians

The fate of Syria is being decided by leaders in European and Middle Eastern capitals, which is pushing the true representatives of the Syrian people to the sidelines.

Photo by: Getty Images
Photo by: Getty Images

Syrian opposition leader George Sabra is a man on the move, shuttling to world capitals such as Paris, Cairo and Doha, where most of the important decisions on Syria are being made.

As the civil war raged on in Syria in 2013, George Sabra, a veteran political activist and leading opposition figure, gathered dozens of opposition leaders in Istanbul.

They had come to discuss a joint response to Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad's attacks on opposition-held cities.  

It was significant for men from varying backgrounds to assemble for a shared cause. Among them were leftist politicians, as well as battle-hardened militant commanders.

It was not their love for Sabra that compelled them to step away from the battlefield. The main attraction was a foreign minister from a Gulf country. 

That didn’t bother Sabra, head of the Syrian National Council (SNC), who had spent more than a decade in Assad's prisons.

However, by the end of the meeting, Sabra was agitated. No decision had been made. People made chit chat, had dinner, and left.

"So I ask the minister: Wasn’t the purpose of the meeting to negotiate a consensus?" he recalled in an interview with TRT World, referring to his interaction with a Qatari minister.

The minister didn’t say anything but just looked at him. "It was a glance that said, 'Oh George, I am not foolish enough to give control of these people to you.' I knew then that things are not in our control."

The SNC, which was formed after the civil war erupted in 2011, is just one of dozens of opposition political organisations active in Syria. Most of the leadership, like Sabra - a Christian who once wrote Arabic scripts for the popular kids’ show Sesame Street - live in exile.

Those fighting in cities such as Aleppo affiliate themselves with one of such political organisations. 

But the commanders on the ground have closer ties to international governments that supply them with arms and money than their fellow Syrians, says Sabra.

Many political groups in Syria have sprung up over the years. All of them claim they represent the free will of the people. This often leads to a stalemate in reaching consensus on key issues. Source: Getty Images

The complex Syrian conflict has drawn in many countries. Russia and Iran are backing Assad's regime – both militarily and economically.

Opposition groups get support from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, France and a few other countries.

"Our friends – the countries supporting us – want direct contact with fighters," said Sabra. But attempts made by the opposition leaders to become a go-between have so far failed. 

So who represents the Syrian people?

Sabra insists SNC is the true representative of the people. So do the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and the National Coordination Committee. Then there are Kurds and a High Negotiations Committee.

Again, it's the foreign powers that have more say in the matter. In November 2012, then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dismissed the SNC as an unpopular leader of the opposition.

Similarly, the National Coalition was formed in Doha. Its first leader resigned within a few months while protesting the interference of foreign governments.

Syrian opposition leaders are often part of the deliberations between European countries but they have little say when it comes to deciding the future of Syria. Source: Getty Images

But a divided and fractious political opposition has not weakened opposition-backed fighters on the ground.

In the most volatile city of Aleppo, opposition forces have withstood severe bombing raids for months. 

"They are the sons of that city. They would never leave or give up," says Sabra of the opposition fighters.

It was also the opposition, with deep roots in towns and cities, that was first to see how the regime enforced a demographic change by pushing out the majority Sunni Arabs from key cities.  

"They have displaced the local population under the pretext of fighting Daesh in Daraya and Qudsaya," said Sabra, "and they are not letting them in."

What does the opposition want?

Sabra is part of the opposition that knows foreign governments can exert pressure on Bashar al Assad. Source: Getty Images

Sabra wants Free Syrian Army fighters to be armed with anti-aircraft weapons – a longstanding demand of the opposition.

"I am not confident if our fighters would be armed with sophisticated weapons. But I am sure something would be delivered on the ground to improve the situation."

Secondly, he says a safe zone inside Syria must immediately be created to resettle more than four million refugees. 

His demand reflects the stand of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who seeks such a zone in northern Syria.

"These settlements, over an area of 5,000 square kilometres, would be temporary," said Sabra.

Even with all his grievances, Sabra himself is looking to the United States to find ways to end the conflict.

US President Barack Obama has remained silent over the Russian-backed bombings of Aleppo.

Political leaders such as Sabra hope that the next president, who will take the oath in January, will exert pressure to resolve the crisis.

"A resettlement plan could work only for the short term. The area doesn’t have resources to support such a large number. But it will give us a few months, until the next US president takes over and looks into the crisis," said Sabra. 

Author: Saad Hasan