Syria summit faces stumbling block over who is friend and foe

Vienna, The foreign ministers meeting in Vienna this weekend to discuss Syria will wrestle with one of the most divisive questions in the conflict — who is the real enemy.

The Vienna meeting is the latest stage in a new diplomatic process aimed at finding a solution to the civil war and brings together the US and Russia, as well as regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. Syria is also likely to play a prominent role in this weekend’s G20 summit in Turkey.

One of the items on the agenda in Vienna will be an attempt to decide which of the groups operating in Syria should be defined as a “terrorist” and which groups the outside powers feel comfortable working with.

For the US and its western allies, the discussion about terrorists is a something of a gamble. John Kerry, US secretary of state, wants to generate momentum for the diplomatic process and some western officials hope that an agreement on common enemies could pressure Russia to focus its military intervention more on the Islamist militants of Isis.

However, the risk is that the discussion takes the focus off the future of the Assad regime and forces western countries to take positions about many of the Islamist members of the Syrian opposition — a debate that the White House, in particular, has been anxious to avoid.

“We all agree we want to target terrorists but we do not agree what a terrorist is,” said Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary. “The Russians, in particular, have had a rather broad-based definition of a terrorist as anyone who is fighting the regime.”

The participants in the Vienna summit are likely to agree on opposition to Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. And although Russian air strikes have attacked elements of the Free Syrian Army, the largely moderate groups supported by the west, Moscow has said it does not consider them to be terrorists.

However, the US has largely avoided taking public stances on many of the other Islamist groups involved in the fighting, in part because some have been supported by Middle East allies and in part because they have at times fought alongside forces being supported by the US.

It is a potential trap because it can create divisions among the western countries, with their Arab and Turkish allies and with their potential interlocutors in Syria,” said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “It plays into the Russian and Iranian strategy of framing the issue as a fight against terrorism rather than the Assad transition.”

In one example of the complex dynamics, Ahrar al-Sham, one of the most prominent opposition groups, started out as a hardline Islamist organisation and has fought alongside Jabhat al-Nusra. But over the past year, it has tried to present itself as a more moderate force and has reached out to western governments to propose itself as a potential partner.

“There will be some difficult discussions around the margin about groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, which is supported by the Turks and Qataris,” said Mr Hammond. “The Russians will undoubtedly start from a position that they are terrorists.”

Some western diplomats fear that Moscow would use a joint definition of terrorist or jihadist groups in Syria to split and weaken the opposition. The Russian defence ministry has claimed that it has agreed with certain rebels to share intelligence and co-ordinate its strikes, although it has failed to identify who these rebels are.

While one working group at the Vienna talks will try to define a list of terrorists, another group will seek to establish a list of Syrians accepted by the outside powers who can act as a form of proxy for the Syrian people in future talks.

Before the increased Russian military intervention in the conflict, Moscow had already been in consultation with the US and Saudi Arabia about an effort to build a common list of names, but the initiative ran aground amid distrust of Russia’s intentions.

During the last Vienna meeting, Russia presented a list of 38 names again. Since then, Mikhail Bogdanov, deputy foreign minister and Mr Putin’s special envoy for the region, has continued holding talks with different Syrian groups.

Source- Financial Times

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