The splits in the Syrian armed opposition between Al Qaeda and less extreme elements associated with the Free Syrian Army have been widely reported in recent weeks, particularly the “defection” of three FSA brigades to Al Nusra last week, but The Independent’s Robert Fisk seems to have an exclusive on a much more extraordinary development: elements of the FSA talking to Syrian president Bashar al Assad on a “Syria-only” solution to the conflict.
“Six weeks ago, a two-man delegation arrived in secret in Damascus: civilians from Aleppo who represented elements of the Free Syrian Army, the rebel group largely composed of fighters who deserted the regimes army in the first year of the war,” Fisk writes. “They came under a guarantee of safety, and met, so I am told, a senior official on the staff of President Bashar al-Assad. And they carried with them an extraordinary initiative that there might be talks between the government and FSA officers who ‘believed in a Syrian solution’ to the war.”
Fisk writes that the delegation made four points: “that there must be an ‘internal Syrian dialogue’; that private and public properties must be maintained; that there must be an end to and condemnation of civil, sectarian, ethnic strife; and that all must work for a democratic Syria where the supremacy of law would be dominant. There was no demand at least at this stage for Assad’s departure.” The government’s reply? “There should indeed be ‘a dialogue within the Syrian homeland’; no preconditions for the dialogue; and a presidential guarantee of safety for any FSA men participating.”
Fisk goes on to note the changes that have occurred in certain rebel held areas of the country: “in seven rebel-held areas of Aleppo, most of them under the control of the FSA, civil employees can return to work in their offices, and government institutions and schools can reopen. Students who have become militiamen over the past two years will be disarmed and return to their classrooms.”
The implications of these developments are obvious to Fisk. “For months now, pro-regime officials have explored how they might win the army defectors back to their side and the growth of al-Nusra and other Islamist groups has certainly disillusioned many thousands of FSA men who feel that their own revolution against the government has been stolen from them. And in areas of Homs province, it is a fact that fighting between the FSA and the army has virtually ceased. In some government-held villages and towns the FSA are already present without being molested.
“And the advantages to Assad are clear. If FSA men could be persuaded to return to the ranks of the regime’s army in complete safety, large areas of rebel-held territory would return to government control without a shot being fired. An army reinforced by its one-time deserters could then be turned against al-Nusra and its al-Qaida affiliates in the name of national unity.”
Fisk wraps up by noting that had the Obama Administration followed John McCain’s advice, US arms supplied to the FSA would already be in the hands of Al Nusra, via the three FSA units that defected, last week. The Islamist fighters have also become the biggest threat to “very existence” of Syria’s Christian communities, and can be seen the massive damage to churches in Raqqa, now controlled by Al Nusra, and the assault on the Christian town of Maaloula, north of Damascus, described as the last place on Earth where the language of Christ is still spoken, but where Al Nusra fighters took perverse pleasure in wrecking the homes of Christians.