Increasing diplomatic ties with the SIG comes with few risks but will have a significant effect on the future of Syria and the region. This is an opportunity to gain with little to lose.
In the first two years of the Syrian Civil War, the so-called ‘Friends of Syria’ recognised the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) as the representative of the Syrian people, neglecting the legitimacy of the Assad regime.
Over the years, this de-jure decision has not changed but more and more states have forgotten about it. The main reason for this was the inability of the SNC to operate inside Syria as an alternative governing body to the Assad regime. However, with the election of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) by the representatives of the Syrian people, this has begun to change. Step by step, the SIG has evolved into an alternative to the Assad regime that has territory, a military, and state apparatus.
As of today, the SIG directly controls 8,835-square-kilometres of territory, heads a 70-90,000-strong army, and controls six operating border crossings. Around 2.3 million Syrians live in the areas held by the SIG that use the Turkish Lira instead of the Syrian Lira, in an area that had a pre-war population of less than a million.
What makes this population more valuable in terms of being an alternative to the Assad regime is the fact that it is made up of Syrians from nearly all of Syria. Hundreds of thousand Syrians prefer to be deported to the areas held by SIG instead of living under the Assad regime. Others who fled from the Assad regime, ISIS (Daesh), and the YPG terror groups formed up a new life in the areas of the SIG.
One can find Syrians from Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, Homs, Daraa, Damascus, Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, and Hasakah in the areas controlled by SIG. More than 400,000 Syrian refugees living in Turkey decided to go back to Syria, but they did so to the areas ruled by SIG, not the Assad regime. The main obstacle Syrians face when they go to SIG areas is the lack of housing and infrastructure. If this problem can be resolved with pragmatism, more Syrians in and outside of Syria would want to live under the SIG.
While many Syrians have already made up their minds and see the SIG as an alternative to the Assad regime, the "Friends of Syria" should acknowledge their de jure position and strengthen ties with the SIG by providing diplomatic and financial support.
The lack of interest for Syria in Western capitals should not be seen as an obstacle, but rather as an opportunity. In most of these states, state diplomats have a better understanding of the situation in Syria, than the general public or political parties. Increasing diplomatic ties with the SIG at such a time will come with fewer domestic risks but will have a significant effect on the future of Syria and the region. This is an opportunity to gain with little to lose.
Some states have already seen and taken this opportunity. Among them are Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait, and the Kurdish Regional Government. These states have organised high-level meetings with the SIG and the SNC. Other states, like the US and European states, are currently limiting themselves to meetings with the SIG via their special representatives for Syria or the region. These meetings via representatives have to be upgraded and states should engage in direct diplomatic talks with the SIG on the foreign ministry level. Just like Qatar and Kuwait did, states can invite the SIG to a meeting in their own countries, or can conduct visits to Syria via diplomatic delegations.
These meetings will also allow Western states access to an alternative in Syria. An alternative that might change and affect all kinds of discussions about Syria like the return of Syrian refugees and the political transition process in Syria as called for by UNSCR 2254.
Ahead of the upcoming pseudo election to be held by the Assad regime, such a step would mark a significant message enhancing the political transition process for Syria. By doing so, the backers of the Assad regime would have to face a new reality in which their hopes to re-legitimise the Assad regime without any political transition would be destroyed.
Such a move would cement an example for other dictators across the world that normalisation is not possible after they have killed civilians en masse and used chemical weapons against civilians. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons recently released a report proving the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.
Last but not least, any argument that an increase in diplomatic relations with the SIG is not possible due to the complexity of the Syrian war is a mere excuse. Many states, especially Western states, have engaged in varied diplomatic outreach to the self-declared autonomous administration of the YPG terror group. Diplomatic teams conduct visits to Syria repeatedly and engage in diplomatic relations with them, despite them being the Syrian branch of the globally designated PKK terror group and their lack of legitimacy.
The YPG follows a separatist agenda and is not part of the UN-led political transition process. On the contrary, the SIG is elected by representatives from all over Syria, has an agenda for the whole country Syria, has legitimacy and represents the biggest bloc of the Syrian opposition in the UN-led political transition process.
In short, whoever wants to support Syrians in their pursuit for an alternative to the brutal Assad regime, should put lame excuses aside, recognise the reality in Syria and support the strengthening of the SIG through diplomatic and financial means.
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