Syria: A political solution is the only way out, says senior Egyptian diplomat

Heba Zaghloul, Wednesday 9 Sep 2015

In interview, deputy chief of cabinet of the Egyptian foreign minister, Nazih El-Naggary, gives context to last month's Syrian opposition meeting in Cairo, and what steps may follow

man at a site recently hit by what activists said was a Scud missile in Aleppo's Ard al-Hamra neighborhood (Reuters)
Last month, Egypt hosted a meeting of the Syrian opposition in Cairo. 
According to Nazih El-Naggary, deputy chief of cabinet of the Egyptian minister of foreign affairs, it was a follow-up committee meeting aiming at implementing a work plan set by the conference of Syrian opposition held in Cairo in June.  
"The aim of the conference was to give a chance to a certain type of opposition which till then wasn't able to express itself. Al-Jazeera channel, for instance, is only paying attention to the coalition (National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces), and before, to the Syrian National Council (SNC)."
Other opposition groups, representing different segments of Syrian society, "together with some independent elements asked Egypt to organise the conference, to be able to express their political opinions."
How did this process start in Egypt?

It was initially the National Coalition, currently based in Istanbul, and the National Coordination Committee (NCC), a Syrian opposition bloc, that wanted Cairo's help "to bring together the coalition and the different opposition groups that didn't join it."

The National Coalition was formed towards the end of 2012, to reduce the Islamist influence that was dominating at that time the SNC, politically and/or financially supported "by some regional actors."

Gradually, the National Coalition was subject to the same influences and accordingly refused to attend the Cairo meeting.

"This in turn led groups such as the NCC, a number of intellectual activists, and the PYD (Democratic Union Party; a party with a Kurdish majority) to call on Egypt to organise this conference, which gathers all those groups, with the aim of finding a political resolution to the conflict. The purpose was to establish a greater and broader opposition that would include all opposition groups," El-Naggary added.

This is in line with the Egyptian government position. "The military solution doesn't work. It has been four years, during which the regime and the armed opposition have been trying to impose themselves with military means, and yet they failed," explained El-Naggary. Meanwhile, Syria is undergoing a critical humanitarian crisis. Ten million Syrians have been displaced.

"The situation can't go on like this. A military solution is simply not viable. Each party is supported by regional actors and hence cannot achieve victory. Terrorism is spreading in the region and war has become regional."

El-Naggary believes that the crisis will not end until a real dialogue is established among Syrians, and also with regional actors that have major influence on the Syrian protagonists. "A political solution is the only way out," he said.

But while Egypt has taken a role in gathering opposition forces, the process underway is purely Syrian.

"It is a Syrian-Syrian negotiation. Egypt's role is to supervise the process without taking part in the negotiations. Discussions are sometimes difficult, though, between Syrians who do not always agree on their goals. So we are offering them our support," said El-Naggary. 

"The process has been fruitful," he added.

"The Cairo conference reminded the international community that there was still a Syrian crisis. The idea was to revive the political option."

Till now, the Syrian regime has refused to negotiate with the opposition, accusing it of terrorism and of carrying out foreign agendas. 

"The opposition groups that came for our help are moderate. Hence they could have more credibility in the eyes of the Syrian regime, especially that this process is taking place in Egypt, a country that has been fighting terrorism, which in turn adds to the credibility of this process," explained El-Naggary.

But Egypt does not intend to work alone. It is looking for international support and coordination.

"We are looking together with the international community for a negotiated political solution to allow the Syrian protagonists to work on the preparation of a new Geneva conference."

The previous Geneva conference  known as Geneva II  was a UN-backed international peace conference on Syria, held in January 2014.

The major stumbling block at Geneva II was the gap between the two parties' priorities, according to El-Naggary. The Syrian regime insisted that the discussions would focus on terrorism, while the opposition was calling for fast track negotiations to reach a political solution. Now "terrorism" is increasing, he said.

"We need to fight ISIS [the Islamic State group] with firm and coordinated means. There is an international consensus on this. Yet, it is clear that we cannot postpone a political solution until terrorism is suppressed in the region. The situation in Syria requires that all Syrian political groups that reject terrorism join forces and unite against this threat," explained El-Naggary. 

A united opposition would therefore be a prerequisite for a successful future Geneva III.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy to Syria, has elaborated a plan to restart negotiations. "We are helping him by giving the Syrians an opportunity to build a strong and unified opposition front that would represent the majority of Syrians and would take part in future negotiations to end the conflict. In other words, we are paving the way for a successful Geneva III," El-Naggary said.

The Egyptian position is not far from those of other Arab countries. 

"We are aiming to implement the roadmap that came out of the Cairo meeting, and we are careful that it would gain Arab countries' support."

The Cairo follow-up committee recently visited Jordan, and Egypt is working on extending this to the Gulf countries. Cairo would like the process "to be Arab, not just Egyptian," El-Naggary said. 

International support is also a priority, he emphasised.

"Russia [Which was visited by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi] and Cairo agree on the need to fight terrorism and the necessity of bringing a political solution," added El-Naggary.

The conditions are not yet fulfilled for this to happen. 

"We are working on it," says El-Naggary. 

A major pre-condition is to formulate a moderate opposition that the regime could negotiate with. 

"This moderate opposition group, which came to Cairo, included 150 people. They produced a roadmap presenting the framework for a transitional period, and a national charter that puts forward  principles pertaining to citizens' rights … a sort of vision for a future Syrian state," says El-Naggary.

Despite the general belief that "extremist" opposition prevails in Syria, El-Naggary believes that a "moderate" opposition also exists inside the country . 

"It is represented by opposition groups such as NCC, among others."

El-Naggary is aware that Syrian dialogue has little chance to succeed without guarantees by regional and international actors that have decisive influence on the various protagonists.

"This process has to be supervised and supported by the international community."

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