Major powers trying to forge a Syrian peace plan have made almost no progress on overcoming one of the main obstacles to ending the war: deciding who is a terrorist – and therefore a legitimate target – and who is not.
Everyone involved in the diplomatic process agrees with the United Nations’ designation that Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, a group linked to al-Qaeda, are terrorists and therefore barred from the negotiating table.
Thereafter the consensus has broken down on the array of other factions fighting the five-year civil war. Rival powers are pushing for groups they dislike to go on a draft blacklist – Iran at one point suggested incorporating the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency – and to keep those they support off it.
This is more than simply a hitch for the peace process, under which talks began in Geneva last month only to be suspended almost immediately. Without an agreed list, any warring faction can say its opponents are terrorists and that it is therefore free to keep fighting them.
“This list hasn’t been touched since December,” said a senior European diplomat. “The difficulty we have is that there are hundreds of different groups on the ground, and groups can change names and affiliations every day.”
The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution in December endorsing an international plan to end the war which has killed 250,000 people and driven 11 million from their homes. This called for the listing of groups in Syria that should or should not be labeled a terrorist organization.
This issue has gained prominence since Feb. 12 when powers committed to securing a cessation of hostilities amid intense Russian air strikes in support of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Diplomats from Western, Gulf Arab nations and Turkey say Russia is trying to strong arm the peace process by crushing the rebels they back and push a military solution. They argue that compiling such a list was a distraction initiated by Moscow, which says its bombing targets only terrorists, while Assad considers all opposition armed groups as fair game.
“The whole exercise appears to have been a plan by Russia to sidetrack the discussions to focus on largely irrelevant matters,” a Western diplomat said. “It worked for a while.”
The International Syria Support Group (ISSG), a club of global and regional powers backing the U.N.-led peace effort, tasked Jordan with collecting proposals from members with a view to creating a final consensual list.
A draft dating from before the Dec. 18 Security Council meeting, obtained by Reuters, shows a messy jumble of dissenting opinions. It lists 163 factions, including many active in Iraq as well as Syria, and indicates which country regards which group as terrorists, and where they want further discussion.
The draft suggests there is no consistent approach. Egypt, Lebanon and Qatar, for example, name scores of groups. The U.S. list is aligned with Jordan’s own proposal but nobody else’s. China names only three groups, and there is no information from Oman, Iran or Britain.
Beyond Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, Turkey named only the Kurdish groups YPG, PKK and KCK. Ankara considers it an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought a three-decade insurgency for Kurdish autonomy in southeast Turkey. Only Qatar also listed the YPG as a terrorist group.
Another group on the list, Jund al-Aqsa, is named as a terrorist organization by the United States, Saudi Arabia and others, but not by Russia, Egypt or Lebanon.
Washington suggested more discussion should be had on Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, two groups backed by Saudi Arabia, and which Riyadh wants included in future peace talks. France did not mark either group as terrorist.
The matter has been characterized by closed-door bickering.
Egypt’s nominations included the Quds Force – the external wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps which is actively supporting Assad, a pick that is said to have infuriated Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
“Zarif suggested that Iran might propose including the CIA as well,” a Western diplomat said.
A senior Gulf Arab official said eight to 10 core factions are fighting on the ground. On top of that are 50-150 “semi-significant” groups and as many as 1,200 small groups whose objectives are purely survival.
“They are like atoms floating around and then the biggest 10 groups are like black holes that suck up the atoms based on their needs,” the official said. Foreign fighting groups such as the Quds Force and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia should be listed if they did not leave the battlefield immediately, the official added.
ONE MAN’S TERRORIST …
Assad said on Feb. 15 that many questions including defining who is a terrorist had to be answered before a ceasefire could happen. As far as the Syrian state was concerned, anyone who carried a weapon against it was a terrorist.
“Who will talk to the terrorists? If a terrorist group rejects the ceasefire, who will hold it to account?” he said.
The confused battle lines and jumble of groups – many of which cooperate in fighting others – often makes it hard to counter such arguments, said another senior Western diplomat.
“It’s the debate we have with the opposition all the time: clarify the links with Jubhat al-Nusra. But their response is the same. On the ground alliances are based purely on local preoccupations and needs. Groups change from one day to the next and will change affiliation depending on what they need.”
Moscow wants the list firmed up and approved by the Security Council, but Western diplomats say the project has effectively been kicked into the long grass and there is no sign of Jordan ever producing a definitive list.
“It will be impossible. Everyone has understood that it is illusory. There will be no terrorism list. It opens up too many divisions. The Russians will perhaps talk about it, offer a lot of rhetoric, but I challenge them to create a list that satisfies everybody.
“It’s the usual debate that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. This will be impossible.”