Stephen Sackur talks to Bassma Kodmani, a member of the negotiating team of the Syrian opposition. Will 2017 see a dramatic shift in the dynamic of the Syria conflict?
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Now on BBC News, Hardtalk.
Welcome to HARDtalk,
I'm Stephen Sackur.
After six years of terrible bloodshed, could 2017 dramatically
shift the dynamic of the Syria conflict?
Change is in the air.
Aleppo has fallen to the Assad regime and a ceasefire deal brokered
by Russia and Turkey is just about folding.
Moscow's dominant role in the diplomatic endgame is now
undisputed with Ankara playing a pivotal role as well.
My guest is Bassma Kodmani of the negotiating
team of the Syrian opposition.
Is it time for the moderate rebels to accept their de facto defeat?
Bassma Kodmani in Paris, welcome to HARDtalk.
Hello, Stephen, thank you.
It's a pleasure to have you on the programme.
Let me start with a question that comes directly from the New Year.
Do you see 2017 bringing with it better prospects
for an end to the conflict in Syria then we have seen at any time
in the previous, almost, six years?
I do, carefully optimistic, but I do.
I do hope and we are working towards making 2017 the end
of the disaster of the tragedy and the beginning of
a political transition.
That is what we are hoping for and the coming
weeks will tell us whether we are moving in that direction
but there is certainly a turning point and
certainly something to build on at the moment
with the new players that have asserted themselves and I think
there is space for diplomacy now if the signals coming out
from Moscow and from Turkey as well as, very
carefully, from Tehran, if these signals are sincere then
we have some hope for a political settlement, yes.
I want to talk about the key players and their
signals in a minute but just taking up your phrase about a turning
Would it be fair to say that the defeat of the anti-Assad
forces in Aleppo was a fundamental turning point?
Certainly, the military confrontation has turned
to the advantage of the Assad regime.
Simply because it had the full and massive support of Russian air
force on one hand and pro-Iranian militia, sectarian militias on the
ground as ground forces.
Very little was done by Assad's forces, it was by one key regional
power and one key international power so it was obvious the outcome
was not going to be in favour of the opposition.
But one needs to look back five years ago or even six years ago
when the uprising started.
Those who rose up against Assad had no arms, no military means
at all so we are looking at a confrontation
that is ending militarily but the ingredients for a conflict
and the confrontation is still there.
If we are going to build on the military balance of forces,
I don't think we will go very far in either defeating terrorism
in Syria or in ending the conflict and having
a satisfactory political transition.
The people of Syria and goodness knows that they
have suffered so much, they have seen well over 300,000
of their people killed, they have seen 12 million and more
displaced including 5 million who have left
the country altogether.
With that in mind, is this the right time for you in the so-called
moderate anti-Assad opposition who have been aligned
with the United States and the Saudis in particular,
would it be the right time to acknowledge that you have
lost out here?
You wanted Assad to go and those who have prevailed,
the Russians in particular and the Iranians as well,
they are the people who are insistent that Assad
need not and will not go?
To be fair to the opposition, it has sought support
from democratic countries, it has received very little support
and obviously the Assad regime has received massive support.
Russia has decided Syria would be the place where it
would signal its international power, stature and military might.
We have seen it happen on our territory.
It is not because we chose to align ourselves
with this or that party.
We as Syrians are asking for dignity,
rights, freedom and security and the right to life today
for every Syrian and for that to happen, we will be
working with any country serious about organising and facilitating
a political transition.
We have tried it with Assad himself directly for ten years,
then the population rose against Assad for six years.
Did not receive any concession, none whatsoever.
We look to all the powers in this world and if Russia
is serious about brokering a settlement in Syria,
it will find a partner among the moderate opposition,
both military and political.
These are people who the moderate political opposition
is very clear about.
The state needs to remain.
There has to be continuity of governance, we need to restore
security to Syria because we know the international community
is worried about international terrorism coming out of Syria.
If I may, let me read between the lines.
You acknowledge the Russians are driving the process,
The Americans with Obama in his final days as president,
with Donald Trump singing a very different tune,
the Americans aren't really in this game at the moment
and as far as you're concerned, you are now ready, are you,
to undertake the peace negotiations the Russians want,
to be, they say, hosted in Astana, Kazakhstan, with the Turks
and the Iranians playing key roles with no sign of the Americans?
Are you with your team in the high negotiations council
of the opposition prepared to participate
in that process?
Look, I believe if these talks were to take place in Astana
or Geneva or any other place, if they are placed under the terms
of reference, if the terms for the talks are clear,
if they refer to UN resolutions which Russia has voted for,
there is no problem in participating in such a process.
Russia is brokering a cessation of hostilities on the ground.
If this holds, the parties will be ready to go
whether they are military or political.
What we would like to see is certainly the new US
administration step in and take some responsibility in brokering
this political arrangement.
We have Russia telling us it is serious about
We have Turkey playing a positive role but so far we have not
had a positive role from Iran.
Let us admit that Iran has been the key spoiler.
Sectarian militias on the ground are our key problem today in Syria.
They are fuelling jihadis on the opposition side.
What we need as a priority is a coalition of countries,
and the Trump administration should be part of that,
to push out both sectarian militias who are poisoning
the ground inside Syria.
I will push you on this a little bit.
You can say what should happen and what you
would like to happen but let's deal with reality,
what is happening.
The US is not playing a role and the UN, frankly,
has been sidetracked as well.
The Russians are dominating the diplomacy right now and I want
a simple yes or no answer.
Are you prepared to go to peace talks that are brokered
and controlled by Russia?
The Russians who don't see a reason to insist that Assad be
removed from power.
Are you prepared to undertake and participate in those talks under
The Russians are referring to the UN resolutions.
If that is clearly the case, there is no problem in participating.
The opposition can go.
What I'm saying is the Trump administration, the US Congress,
are clearly coming out against Iranian behaviour
across the Middle East because it has really destabilised the region.
That is where we can expect the Trump administration will play
a role in pressuring Iran to limit its presence
across the region.
It's Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, everywhere in the region
and we have a real problem there with the Shia militias
on the ground.
We cannot get rid of Sunni jihadis whether it is Daesh,
Al Nusra, radical groups, if we have this poisonous presence
of Shia militias on the side of the regime.
This is where Iran needs to come to terms
with what needs to happen on the ground in order for Syria
to see a peaceful settlement.
On one point of detail, yesterday a coalition of 12
or so different anti-Assad forces on the ground said
they were going to reject any further diplomacy under
the Russian-Astana tent because of what they described as systematic
violations of the ceasefire agreement by Assad forces
on the ground.
If that your position as well or you prepared to say
that the ceasefire is holding in a satisfactory way?
Unfortunately the ceasefire is not holding.
These groups are the ones who signed with
Russia and Russia signed on behalf of the regime,
an agreement for cessation of hostilities.
The groups abided by the ceasefire and the Syrian regime
is not abiding.
What the groups are asking is for our Russia to get the Assad
regime to behave, to comply and enforce the cessation
If it is credible, a political negotiation can happen.
These groups are willing to go to Astana, they signed,
they said they were going and now we see the other side is not
respecting any of that.
We need Russia to put pressure needed, and it can do so,
on Iran and the Syrian regime if it was a political settlement.
I personally believe that Russia today has an interest in finding
an exit strategy through a political settlement.
I would expect it will do so.
Have you and other negotiators who have aimed
your efforts mostly at the UN track in Geneva, have you reached out
with key Russian officials?
Through the United Nations we have contacts with
everyone involved in this crisis.
With respect, I don't mean through the UN track.
The Financial Times reported last month that some
moderate leaders had covert and secret talks with Russian
officials hosted by the Turks in Ankara.
Have you been involved in that?
The Turks have hosted talks with military groups
and lots of political figures from the opposition have also been
in touch directly with Russia.
Some have gone to Moscow and some have met them elsewhere.
There are many messages passed on to the Russians and they know
exactly where the opposition stands and what it is willing to negotiate.
Really, the problem today is not so much Russia and the opposition.
They know each other, or they understand each
We are willing to operate and negotiate under the political
transition, fine, we can go to a negotiation
on political transition...
If I may say, we have talked before and you have always in the past
said, you know what, it's quite simple, the removal
of Assad, no role for us that in the transition.
That is a dealbreaker dealbreaker for us.
We cannot sign anything or engage in any process that involves Assad.
It seems to me that you must be changing your mind.
If you say you believe in Russia's good faith
and believe in their desire to see the conflict ended,
we know the Russians don't feel that Assad has
to go so presumably, to have given ground
on that, have you?
Look, can I say very simply, we read the international equation.
Here's the balance of forces on the ground, here is what Russia
is seeking to achieve, a political settlement,
fine, along the lines of resolutions in the UN,
to talk about political transition.
That is fine for us.
What Assad becomes is how he behaves in these negotiations.
Is he in a position to make concessions, to yield some
of his prerogatives, a lot of his prerogatives,
most of his prerogatives, any of his prerogatives,
to a transition government?
If that is the case then the discussion changes but do
you think the opposition...
He might be leading the transition.
He cannot lead it.
He obviously cannot lead it.
He is not showing any indication other than destroying communities
and starving people.
We need to see some behaviour that is positive on the other side,
then we will have a partner for peace.
If we don't, I think Russia will come to terms with the fact
that it doesn't have a party on the other side and cannot ask
the opposition to do much to work with Assad if Assad doesn't
want to work with the opposition.
The equation is fairly easy, you know.
We are not asking for Assad to go away the day we enter negotiations.
We are talking about negotiations in which there are give and take.
We need prisoners out, we need women and children to be
safe and to be released also from prisons.
We need the disappeared, to have news about them.
We need to have the bombings stop and barrel bombs stop
being thrown at civilians.
I'm sorry to repeat myself.
I don't want to get stuck on this issue, but one last time,
it does seem to me that you have given ground on the role of Assad.
You are now acknowledging to me that Assad will be a key figure
in the negotiations.
He won't just be removed, it will be Assad in many ways
who is the figure deciding what he can give.
Look, the power of Assad is very little.
He has nuisance power, yes, but those who are negotiating,
the decision-making power is in Moscow and Tehran.
Unfortunately there is no Syrian regime that can
still decide on a yes or no.
That is why we are talking to Russia.
We will be talking to the countries and parties that support
the Assad regime, not so much the regime itself.
We need to find some reasonable voices over there,
we have not seen them so far, he has prevented them from rising
and if negotiations can bring those reasonable voices out and if we can
talk to them and have them safely talk to us without being themselves
punished for showing some reasonable behaviour, then we will have
a negotiated process.
Otherwise I think Russia will understand, Iran is more difficult,
but Russia will understand that it doesn't have a helpful partner out
there and needs to work differently with the opposition.
Everything we are talking about is couched in terms
of Moscow, Putin, Russia.
Let's reflect on how we got to where we are today.
Do you feel desperately let down, maybe even betrayed
by the Obama administration?
I think the Obama administration has opted out.
It should have played the role that was what a US role
should be in this region.
Opting out of this region is abandoning certain
responsibilities vis-a-vis Syria but also vis-a-vis the whole region,
Iraq, the Gulf countries.
We are in a region where the US was a key player.
It cannot just pull out as it did and in the case of Syria,
it is the Syrian population, yes, that is paying the price.
Yes, we are disappointed.
Obama, he steered away from obviously any significant
military action against Assad.
It looked possible for a while, he walked away from it.
He talked, or at least Hillary Clinton talked
for a while about some sort of aerial intervention
to establish safe havens.
They walked very long, long way from that.
They talked about training moderate forces on the ground.
Well, the training programme turned out to be pitiful.
So when you look at all of those elements of what the administration
talked about and didn't deliver, give me your final verdict as Obama
is about to leave office.
Well, I believe he should have thought of where security,
how to restore security in Syria and today that is our concern.
The Obama administration has decided that there was no possibility
to challenge Russia.
He certainly should have challenged Russia at some point
and at those turning points, he failed us, he certainly did.
But what we are looking at today is can we bring
back security to Syria?
Because this is the concern of the international community.
Unfortunately, no one is thinking of Assad.
Assad can sit there, they don't see the risk
and they don't see the link between terrorism rising
and Assad staying in power.
Fine, but what we are seeing today is if you want to bring
an alternative to the horrible, criminal system that we have
in Syria, then we have to have a security plan for this
country and we need the cooperation of every country.
We need the US, we need Russia.
Your message to Donald Trump then, Donald Trump the man who says
Vladimir Putin is very smart and who also says that when it comes
to analysing the serious situation, his objective and his overriding
concern is smashing the jihadists in so-called Islamic State.
It doesn't seem to be in getting rid of Assad whatsoever.
So your message to Trump?
The message to Trump is get the foreign fighters out of Syria.
Shia militias, pro-Iranian, they are Iraqis, they are Afghans,
they are Iranians, they are not Syrians and on the other side,
there are jihadis who are foreigners and we want them out of the country.
This is what the international community needs to help
the reasonable Syrians in order to achieve the coming
weeks and months.
That's when we can have the ground for a political settlement.
We don't have much time left and I just want you now to reflect
on the six years that have brought us here.
You have been actively involved with the opposition throughout
that six-year period and here we are with
Russia in the ascendancy, with the Americans opted out
and with Donald Trump singing a tune that doesn't sound
like it is going to suit you very well, and on the ground,
the opposition forces defeated in Aleppo and on the defensive
in those pockets of territory they still retain.
Is it time for you to quit, for the opposition to say,
we tried, we failed, the country has been ruined
and the best thing now is to walk away and accept defeat
because that is the only way we can save further life?
This is our country.
We cannot give up.
Giving up makes no sense.
What we are looking to achieve...
Well, it makes sense when you are saving lives.
Well, no, it is not, because coming under Assad's
control tomorrow morning, if that is to happen,
is also under Shia militias.
Again, Assad has no capacity to control the country, to govern it.
Neither the legitimacy nor the capacity, the military capacity.
He needs those foreign troops to be on the ground,
so it is too late to imagine a scenario of Assad returning
and retaking control of the whole country.
That is not going to happen because he cannot do it.
Even if Russia wants him to do it, he cannot achieve it.
Quickly, what Russia seems to want, as best as we can understand,
it is that they want a much more federal system, Assad
to still be president, much more autonomy to the different
regions of Syria, which would then recognise the rights
of all of the different ethnic groupings within the country,
a looser system but one in which still has Assad
at its federal centre.
Could you imagine accepting that?
I think the Russians will themselves realise that that is not
going to work with Assad.
We want decentralisation, we want a loose control from the centre,
we want obviously a democratic, participative system,
so we are not disagreeing here and we are saving we need
security and fighting terrorism.
We are on the side of the international community on this.
Is Assad on the side of the international community?
That is the real question to ask.
Is he willing to fight those jihadi groups because the Shia groups
are just as jihadi as Daesh group, so that is what we need to achieve.
Is Assad a partner in doing that?
I don't believe he has shown any indication of that and this
is where we believe the opposition is showing every sign
that it is part of the solution and that with it builds security
capacity and governance capacity for a future Syria.
Do you think we will be having this conversation again
at the beginning of 2018, with Syria still at war
or will it be over by then?
I think war will be over by then.
I think the parties are exhausted and I do believe that
in 2018, we will be talking about what we have reconstructed
so far and how we have brought legitimate governance
to the different areas of Syria.
That is my belief and that is what we are fighting for.
We will end on that positive note.
Bassma Kodmani, thank you very much for joining me from Paris.
Stephen Sackur talks to Bassma Kodmani, a member of the negotiating team of the Syrian opposition.
After six years of terrible bloodshed, will 2017 see a dramatic shift in the dynamic of the Syria conflict? Aleppo has fallen to the Assad regime and a ceasefire deal brokered by Russia and Turkey is just about holding. Moscow's dominant role in the diplomatic endgame is now undisputed, with Ankara also playing a pivotal role. Is it time for the moderate rebels to accept their de facto defeat?