Last month, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced an international conference to end the bloodshed in Syria. Kerry warned that “the alternative is that there’s even more violence.” Lavrov emphasised that Russia’s overriding concern was “the fate of the total Syrian people”.
Diplomatic preparations for the conference got underway. The Syrian Coalition, as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, reiterated its commitment to working with anyone who comes to the table in good faith. The US, France and Britain — like Russia — coordinated with regional allies to secure approval of the conference in principle and planned meetings. To the outside world, the Bashar Al Assad regime in Damascus seemed to agree to attend and produced a list of envoys — while insisting that Al Assad retain power.
Inside Syria, however, the Al Assad regime has proceeded with very different preparations. Syrian forces amassed outside the western town of Qusayr, near the border with Lebanon, and demanded that all residents evacuate. Days later, just as Kerry arrived in the Middle East to build diplomatic support for peace talks, hundreds of fighters from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah invaded Qusayr. With the support of vicious, regime-led air raids that local activists described as the worst they had ever seen, the regime and Hezbollah fighters took over the area. A leader of the local Free Syrian Army (FSA) told me that they counted more than 40 missiles per minute.
This battle had grave humanitarian consequences. Qusayr was home to 40,000 people. Because the regime has choked off escape routes, thousands of civilians remain trapped. The regime has refused requests from the International Red Cross to evacuate as many as 1,500 wounded who urgently needed medical care. Given the regime’s pattern of systematic mass killings in recaptured areas, such as Houla, another large massacre may take place.
We have also received reports of a significant incursion of Lebanese, Iranian and Iraq-based militias deep into Syrian territory. This threatens to increase sectarian tensions and massacres, permanently offend Syria’s territorial integrity and prevent the delivery of much-needed humanitarian aid. Their presence also poses a significant obstacle to the implementation of any transitional agreement.
Simply put, we hear what Al Assad says, but we also see what his regime does. He uses negotiations as a tool to buy time as he continues his assault on innocent civilians. This creates a humanitarian catastrophe and demonstrates bad faith towards resolving the conflict.
The goals Kerry and Lavrov espoused — avoiding further violence and ensuring the safety of the Syrian people — are being fundamentally compromised by Al Assad and his invading allies. Even as the regime pretends on a diplomatic level to prepare for talks, it escalates violence and undermines Syrian sovereignty on the ground. Negotiations cannot be effective while Assad orchestrates such a massive assault and humanitarian crisis.
The Syrian Coalition remains committed to a political solution. We support implementation of the widely supported Geneva Communique, which, at its core, calls for a transition of full executive powers — including the transfer of all military and security authority — to a mutually agreed-upon transitional government. We also urge the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria to fulfil its mandate and investigate in all parts of the country, including areas under opposition control.
During recent talks in Istanbul, our coalition expanded to include secular activists, activists in Syria and moderate rebel fighters. We plan to address structural changes and other pertinent matters as preparation for the talks in Geneva and for a post-Al Assad transition.
The international community should not mistake our sometimes heated or chaotic disagreements on tactics for a lack of consensus on our ultimate goal. Our entire coalition supports a democratic Syria free from Al Assad’s autocratic control. Internal political divisions among Syria’s democrats are no excuse for the world’s ongoing inaction as Al Assad, Iran and Hezbollah commit brutal massacres to prop up a failed dictatorship.
Ultimately, the violence in Syria needs to end and the country must begin the long, painful process of rebuilding and reconciliation. But this process cannot begin while Al Assad is in Syria, wreaking humanitarian catastrophe. The US must increase political pressure on Russia and other supporters of Al Assad to end the violence and allow a democratic transition to proceed without him. To address the urgent needs of citizens, the international community must establish a humanitarian corridor to allow civilians in Qusayr and elsewhere in Syria safe passage. With President Obama’s decision to authorise lethal aid to the FSA, the international community must also provide vetted, pro-democracy elements of the FSA with defensive, traceable weaponry so that they can repel Al Assad’s attacks on civilians. This will inhibit Al Assad from killing his way through the revolution. It will prevent further massacres of civilians, and, ultimately, facilitate a political solution to end the violence.
Khalid Saleh is director of the Syrian Coalition’s media office and is a founding member of the Syrian National Council.