On April 25, an opposition group known as Building the Syrian State (BSS) issued a statement saying it had left the High Negotiations Committee, or HNC, which is the main Syrian opposition delegation negotiating at the Geneva III peace talks. The HNC itself announced on April 18 that it was suspending its participation in the talks, in a move seemingly related to the faltering truce in Syria, but UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura has said he would try to continue to organize some form of discussions.

At this point, reports about Syrian opposition splits may seem along the lines of “the sky’s still blue.” On closer inspection, the split itself turns out to be less than meets the eye—but it provides a window into the world of the Syrian opposition and its enduring structural problems, internal rivalries, and ties to foreign states, all of which have helped render anti-Assad negotiators impotent.

Resigning, De-Resigning, and Re-Resigning

There is no dispute about the fact that the BSS is now outside the HNC. In an interview by phone from Amman, BSS media spokesperson Malik al-Hafez confirmed to me the authenticity of the group’s statement and elaborated on its criticism of the HNC. “The decision to withdraw is a result of an accumulation of errors in the work of the HNC from the very start and these led to the situation today,” he said. He criticized the strong foreign influence over the HNC—American, Saudi, Turkish, etc.—and concluded that “it has become dependent on foreign and Arab states. They are not an independent body and they do not control their own decisions.”

However, the question is whether the BSS was part of the HNC in the first place, and to what extent that really matters?

The BSS is a very small group led by the former prisoner of conscience Louai Hussein, positioned on the most moderate secular-leftist end of the Syrian opposition. It was invited to the December 2015 Riyadh Conference, which had been convened by foreign backers of the opposition to forge a unified political front and ended up creating the HNC, primarily because of three things:

  • The governments backing the Riyadh Conference, including Saudi Arabia and the United States, were seeking the broadest possible representation of opposition factions and were thus disinclined to exclude any group willing to join. (An exception was made for Turkey’s enemies among the powerful Kurdish factions in northern Syria, which are linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Despite their obvious on-the-ground relevance and their express desire to participate at Geneva, they were excluded from the talks.)
  • Several states, apparently including Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and possibly some Western governments, tried to pressure the opposition and its backers to include more secular figures in the HNC, in order to offset the presence of Islamist factions and Sunni-sectarian rebels.
  • The opposition’s dearth of non-Sunni members, particularly Alawites, has long undercut its ability to fashion itself as a suitable representative of the whole of the Syrian people. Considering the dominant role of Alawites in the Syrian government—most prominently including President Bashar al-Assad and his family—it is also a political stumbling block. The fact that BSS leader Louai Hussein hails from an Alawite family presumably made it easier for him to secure a seat in the HNC.

As things turned out, the BSS was never a good fit with the rest of the HNC bloc and disagreements arose immediately. After being given the cold shoulder by the HNC majority, Hussein angrily handed in a letter of resignation in January this year, before the Geneva III talks had begun. Since then, Hussein tried to walk back his resignation and the BSS has presented itself as a charter member of the HNC.

The HNC has seen things differently. Two days after the BSS pulled out of the Geneva talks, the HNC publicly denounced Hussein’s claims of a relationship with the negotiating bloc. HNC spokesperson Salem al-Meslet told reporters that “the head of the BSS, Louai Hussein, is considered outside the HNC” ever since January, when he submitted his resignation. The BSS announcement about severing its relations with the HNC came five days after Meslet’s comments and it therefore seems less like an actual withdrawal and more like a face-saving gesture after the fact.

A Microscopic Group

In addition, there is the question of what the BSS really represents. Even some otherwise sympathetic opposition figures, who are not part of the BSS but share its dim view of the HNC, took the announcement with a smile and a shrug, saying it amounts to nothing in practice. The BSS has “only seven members in total,” claimed a well-connected exile dissident, speaking to me by phone. “We know each other,” the person added, and proceeded to list all seven by name, position in the group, and country of residence.

When asked about such comments, al-Hafez readily admits that the BSS is very small as an organization, without giving any particular number of members. But he defends the group’s role as a political actor, saying that it seeks to represent the interests of war-weary Syrians looking for a way out of the war.

“We do not claim to represent a wide stratum of opinion,” he said, “but we do have supporters among people in Syria who are fed up with this situation.”

The Virtual World of Exile Politics

The BSS’s size might not necessarily matter. Syrian opposition politics has long been a game operating under its own laws, which have very little to do with the military capacity or membership numbers of any participant faction. Much of this game plays out in the media for symbolic effect and public consumption, rather than on the ground in the country.

The great-power diplomacy surrounding the Geneva talks has further complicated the situation. Since there is no autonomous, effective, and indigenous Syrian rebel leadership able to select its own representatives, foreign states have taken it upon themselves to suggest negotiators. A variety of governments are jostling to select opposition representatives to the talks, while the Syrian factions themselves court foreign support to assure themselves of a seat at the table. Turkey’s role in barring the most powerful Kurdish faction from formal attendance at Geneva has already been mentioned. Western and Arab states have promoted their favorite dissidents inside the HNC, which they have fought to preserve as the only official opposition delegation. Conversely, Russia and Iran have sought to undermine the HNC’s centrality by packing the talks with as many alternate factions as possible.

In his attempts to navigate these countervailing pressures, de Mistura has brought numerous non-HNC dissidents into the Geneva process as ”consultants,” thereby sidestepping Security Council and great-power restrictions on who can be named a formal delegate. Since the discussions in Geneva are so-called proximity talks, where the diplomats shuttle between opposing teams without ever bringing them together in the same room, the UN envoy has had some room to maneuver on this point. De Mistura has also met with many groups and figures on the sidelines of the Geneva talks, without conferring any official or semi-official standing on them.

Among the small non-official factions now crowding the doorway to Geneva III, we find, apart from the Kurds, a few well-known exile dissidents, mostly but not exclusively of a very moderate stripe. They include Haitham Mannaa and his Qamh Movement, Jihad Maqdesi of the closely related Cairo Group, and Ahmed Jarba’s Ghad Movement.

There are also three Assad-friendly pseudo-opposition factions, which are prominent not because of their influence but because of the attention lavished on them by Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran: Qadri Jamil’s Moscow Group, Randa Qassis’s Astana Group, and Elian Mousaad’s Hmeymim Group. Each is named for the place where it was created (Hmeymim being the site of a Russian airbase in Syria) and each group seems interested mainly in two things: attacking the HNC and elbowing its way into the Geneva process.

While the Russian government professes to consider these three groups meaningful opposition representatives, this is a transparent fraud. The Hmeymim Group, for example, contains parties that are represented in the Syrian cabinet, is on record as rejecting the removal of Bashar al-Assad, refuses any renegotiation of Syria’s authoritarian constitution, and recently urged Syrians to vote in the parliamentary elections—a sham poll that took place under laws expressly written to guarantee a majority for the ruling Baath Party. Their role in the Geneva talks, to which they were transported on board a Russian military aircraft, is not to negotiate a political transition, but to prevent one.

Unlike the Assad government, the HNC, and the PKK factions, none of these groups wields any significant influence inside Syria, regardless of which foreign nation has decided to advocate its presence in Geneva. (Only Jarba’s group may be emerging as a partial exception.) They cannot end violence on a single segment of the frontline, escort a single aid convoy to safety, or hand over a single village to a new unity government. This means that their participation is not, strictly speaking, necessary for anyone but their own members.

While they all claim to represent Syria’s silent majority, that majority is by nature rather reticent about its political preferences. Whether they are to have any role in the talks is therefore entirely up to de Mistura and whatever secret deals have been foisted upon him by Russians, Americans, Iranians, Saudis, French, Turks, Qataris, and whoever else has made it their business to interfere in Syria’s internal affairs—not to mention the PKK’s attempts to circumvent Turkish objections.

Typical of exile groups, and not unlike the more fervently anti-Assad Syrian National Council and its successor, the National Coalition, these opposition factions therefore spend the lion’s share of their time courting foreign patrons, trying to attract de Mistura’s attention, and striking little deals with each other, rather than engaging with people in Syria.

The BSS Looks for New Allies

Though it has been deprived of a role within the HNC, the BSS could surely join this circle of Ithacan suitors of the silent majority and, more immediately, of de Mistura. With the HNC now in self-imposed exile from Geneva, Russia appears to be mobilizing to insert a delegation of its own clients—Jamil, Qassis, and Mousaad—into the resulting void. The Kurds, too, have quietly been meeting with people in Geneva.

“We’re studying the situation and preparing a new vision for our alliances, in advance of new rounds of talks,” said al-Hafez. “We may enter the talks under our own name, although this would have to be discussed by the BSS leadership first, or we may join them as part of another coalition. Apart from the main talks, there are also meetings on the sidelines for us to participate in. Perhaps we will reach an agreement with some other force present in Geneva, or with more than one, and try to form an alliance for the next round of talks in that way.”

That seems quite feasible. Whether there will at that point be any Geneva talks left to join in is of course much less certain.

Photo Credit: Flickr, UN Geneva, http://bit.ly/1Uf8twL