In the wake of repeated failures to achieve a solution to the Syrian crisis, some Syrian observers are now talking about the imminent formation of a joint military council composed of dissident opposition officers and officers who still serve the regime, primarily from the country’s Alawite community, but who do not have blood on their hands.
The council would rule Syria during the interim phase, impose security, collect weapons, halt rebel and radical factions and lawless regime militias known as shabiha (thugs), oversee the political transition, and expel foreign combatants of all stripes from the country.
It would put an end to the regime’s unruly security agencies and cooperate with the international community to enter a transitional phase. It would be the guarantor of decisions taken by the civilian Transitional Ruling Authority (TRA) stipulated by UN Resolutions on Syria.
Many believe that the TRA, stipulated in the Geneva I Declaration on the Syrian crisis and supported by UN Security Council Resolution 2245, was not created due to Russian support for the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and its rejection of this step.
It is no longer possible to form the TRA due to the chaotic situation in Syria, and for many a joint military council could be the solution.
In recent weeks, opposition media outlets and non-Syrian media have reported on a scenario, rehashed from the past, of forming a military council to take charge of the interim phase. The idea has gained resonance on all levels, even on the global stage.
It focuses on Syrian General Manaf Tlass becoming chairman of the council. A military source close to Tlass said plans were being drawn up for the leadership of Syria, though these would take more time.
The source said the initiative had been discussed with countries that are friends of the Syrian people and would soon see the light of day. It is not confined to groups active in specific regions, the source said, but draws from across Syria and covers all influential Syrian actors, as well as international players interested in Syrian affairs.
The source said it was too early to reveal the plans, because a national Syrian vision must be formulated first, to be followed by international consultations.
Commenting on steps taken thus far, the source said they focused on finding a new approach among Syrian actors, rather than waiting for international solutions imposed by other countries. Consultations are underway among Syrian actors who have agreed to the idea and tentatively support it, but are awaiting technical details and measures, the source said.
The Tlass plan was born in early 2016 when a US document on the Syrian crisis was leaked. In the document, Washington outlined a timeline for the political process in Syria, including forming a military council composed of regime and opposition representatives. There would be the formation of an interim ruling body, the drafting of a new constitution to be put to a referendum and the relinquishment of power by Al-Assad and his circle, it said.
It would signal the start of the transitional body exercising full executive powers.
The document was an initial proposal to help solve the Syrian crisis. As soon as the US mentioned the possibility of a joint military council, there was much interest in it and the idea that the US plan could one day be implemented.
The leaked document mirrors UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which stipulates a timeline conforming to the one in the US document. The document was published by the Associated Press, a US media outlet. Statements by leaders of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is mainly composed of officers who have defected from the Syrian army, have shown that preparations are underway to form a joint military council between the opposition and the regime.
Tlass is in constant contact with officers who have left the regime and officers still in its service who were once his friends. He is trusted by both sides and is a veteran military figure who has refused to have blood on his hands. He is Sunni, is approved by the Islamist opposition, is a friend of senior Alawite officers due to his close ties to the Al-Assad family, and is trusted by the Alawites.
Sources say that Tlass would be capable of forming a joint council that included more than 50,000 fighters from both sides within days if his plan is approved by the international community or the US.
The plan cannot move forward while Al-Assad remains in power, however, and its launch will be conditional on his stepping down. The council will then regain control of Syrian territory, monitor the political transformation and guarantee the implementation of decisions reached in negotiations.
Tlass is well acquainted with the Syrian military machine, having been the commander of a brigade in the Syrian Republican Guard in charge of protecting the capital Damascus. His father served as minister of defence under former Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad, but he is believed to be able to bring together officers from all religious, regional and ethnic affiliations in Syria and on both sides of the conflict. He has extensive Arab, regional and Western relationships.
Syrian Air Force Colonel Abdel-Razzak Freija, commander of the 30th Division and chair of the military council in Hamah, said that “there are senior officers who have defected and are trusted by both sides. The best-qualified is Manaf Tlass, and we have been coordinating with him militarily since 2012.”
If the plan succeeds, it will end the Syrian crisis because it will bring people together of their own volition. It will be led by both opposition figures who will guarantee the implementation of the revolution’s goals, as well as Alawite officers who are convinced that Al-Assad’s actions have destroyed Syria and are leading to disaster.
The plan will guarantee that no recriminations take place against Syria’s Alawite community.
Many Alawite officers understand that Al-Assad has manipulated the country’s minorities in his sectarian war, instead of bringing them together under a national banner. When the revolution began in 2011, they had similar demands, but the regime dragged them into war. Today, there are many senior Alawite officers willing to cooperate with the joint military council in ending Al-Assad’s rule.
But the council must have international support, and it must eliminate all extremist groups and factions, expel foreign combatants, and form a new regular army. Tlass has said the council would not interfere in political affairs, but would assist in regulating the political scene. It would not become an alternative to the executive authorities.
The hundreds of Syrian officers who have defected from the regime and now live in Turkey or Jordan are likely to support the proposed council. They are ready to partner with their counterparts in the regular army to restore stability in Syria, if Al-Assad and his senior commanders are willing to step down.
Also partnering with them are Alawite officers whose hands are clean and who believe the regime has embroiled them in a futile war. Many Alawites are worried about regime change taking place in Syria without a clear alternative that will guarantee their safety. They would be willing to participate in a joint military council supported by the international community that would make these guarantees.
The Syrian opposition does not support the plan, however. It is concerned that the council would return power to the military and that some opposition groups would be forced from the political scene.
But a moderate council that does not include anyone who gave orders to kill would win wide support among the Syrian people, whether it comes as a result of a Syrian plan or one based on a US proposal from abroad. If the council does gain US support, it could be the best way to end the crisis in Syria, which is now in its tenth year.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly