The appearance of Osama Abu Zaid, a young man in his thirties, at a press conference in Ankara to announce a ceasefire in Syria based on a Turkish-Russian agreement provoked mixed responses. While some questioned his background and his role in the agreement, others supported and defended his position.
Abu Zaid was born in 1986 in Daraya in the rural outskirts of Damascus and is a descendant of the Maatarmawi family from Daraya. He studied law at Damascus University and participated in the peaceful revolutionary mobilization from its outset, leading to his arrest three times by Syrian intelligence. He represented the legal office of the local council of the city of Daraya when it was first formed.
On 29 December 2016, Abu Zaid came out in a press conference to announce the agreement on a ceasefire, speaking in the name of the Syrian opposition factions after they signed an agreement with the Russian side.
What does the agreement involve and why did it provoke widespread criticism?
The agreement was supported by a number of factions, especially as it succeeded in not excluding certain areas or opposition factions including the Fateh al-Sham Front. However, Russian moves and the Syrian regime’s continued bombardment of several areas, especially Wadi Barada in Damascus’ countryside, led to criticism of the agreement. The negotiating delegation, led by Abu Zaid, was accused of acting in a way that lacked political shrewdness and foresight.
Speaking to Enab Baladi, Abu Zaid commented, “Given the current circumstances and the humanitarian situation after the displacement of residents from many areas, the latest being Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods, and the military situation on the ground, we are not in a position to impose all our conditions.”
He reasserted the fundamental revolutionary principles, “From the perspective of legitimacy, neutralizing one’s enemies is legitimate and a truce is not problematic from a revolutionary, moral or legal perspective. The proposal is a ceasefire then negotiations for a political solution.”
The factions would rather have a ceasefire without seeking a political solution, according to Abu Zaid. However, they decided to accept a truce if they could obtain a serious commitment to it from the regime’s side, in order to provide some respite to civilians, rebels and fighters, after which there is no harm in entering into political negotiations, according to Abu Zaid.
Abu Zaid previously worked as a legal adviser to the Free Syrian Army after participating in a number of trainings on international humanitarian law with the organization, Geneva Call. Through this training, he gained expertise that he then transferred to opposition faction commanders through his work as a trainer at the Afaq Academy for Change and in various campaigns targeting fighters, the most prominent being “Fighters Not Killers”.
Based on this experience, the opposition factions made him their official spokesperson in Ankara in the presence of the representatives of 12 factions, 11 of which signed the agreement with the Russian side.
Differences Between Copies of the Agreement and No Solution at Hand
The document signed by the factions includes several clauses that differ in the document signed by the regime in Damascus. In the latter, the regime is a sponsor of the ceasefire and announces it according to its own preferences, in contradiction with the agreement reached by the factions with the Russians.
Regarding this issue, Abu Zaid said, “The rebels refused to sign the document with the regime so there was a proposal that we sign a document with the guarantors – the Russians and Turks – and the regime in turn would sign a document with the guarantors… We signed in Ankara so the regime was not present. The regime signed its documents in Damascus and the Turkish guarantor was not present because of the hostility between the Turkish side and the regime. Thus, the Russians committed fraud by allowing the regime to sign a different agreement, which violates the fifth article of the agreement stating that the copies of the agreement must be identical.”
He added, “We were unable to control the situation because neither we nor the Turks were present in Damascus.”
The regime continues to violate the ceasefire using the excuse that the Fateh al-Sham Front (formerly al-Nusra Front) is located in the areas it is targeting, which is allowed in the document the regime signed. The opposition factions responded by issuing a statement on 2 January 2017 announcing the suspension of any preparatory activities for the Astana negotiations.
Did the delegation bypass the Higher Negotiations Committee?
The majority of criticisms of the negotiating delegation were aimed at their alleged bypassing of the Higher Negotiations Committee assigned by the factions to negotiate with the Syrian regime since the Riyadh Conference in December 2015. The Committee and its coordinator, Riyad Hijab, enjoy unanimous international support.
Abu Zaid, who has been traveling between Syria and Turkey throughout the last period and who is known for his proximity to Free Army factions, said, “There is a general belief that the factions were planning to engage in political negotiations but the agreement only concerns the ceasefire and agreeing to enter into political negotiations. The negotiations that were expected to take place in Astana were naturally going to be conducted by the Higher Negotiations Committee, which is the revolutionary committee assigned to undertake negotiations, and this was agreed in coordination with Doctor Riyad Hijab.”
Before agreeing to participate in the Astana Conference in Kazakhstan, expected to take place in January 2017 between opposition factions and the regime, the opposition delegation is demanding that the Russian delegation commit to the agreement and alter the two copies so that they are identical. Abu Zaid added, “If this happens, we will communicate with the Negotiations Committee and consult with the opposition regarding the negotiating delegation.”
Where is the agreement heading?
The most likely scenario is that the Russians will not be able to impose the agreement on the Iranians and are not themselves committed to maintaining the ceasefire, which will cause the agreement to collapse. The Russians, Iranians and the regime would then be the parties who caused the failure of the agreement after the factions had committed to it.
The negotiating delegation spokesman indicated that the delegation members are trying to put pressure by preventing the UN Security Council from voting on the agreement through pro-opposition member states. Some factions are responding to the violation of the agreement by attacking regime positions that are targeting Wadi Barada, through an alliance of factions in the besieged area.
Abu Zaid added, “When we give up hope that the agreement will be respected in Wadi Barada, then the agreement will have been destroyed by the Russians, the Iranians and the regime.”
Abu Zaid questioned criticism of the negotiation delegation, “Can anyone state what our commitments are, according to the signed agreement?” At the end of the conversation, he said, “This position does not mean that we trust Russia, Iran or the regime. We have only taken one step forward. If the sides commit to the agreement then so be it. If not, we have our weapons ready.”