Ali Darwish| Noureddine Ramadan| Hussam al-Mahmoud
The idea of forming a military council has lately been echoing through the Syrian spheres of authority. The council is to lead a transitional phase without Bashar al-Assad and to comprise military figures from both camps, the opposition and the regime.
So far, there have not been any official statements pertaining to the council, neither from the regime nor from the Syrian National Army (SNA). But the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is apparently enthusiastic about the idea.
This is not the first time that Syrians hear about the military council, nor the name nominated to head it. The name of Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, a defector from the regime’s army since September 2012 has always echoed with the council’s idea, even though Tlass is famous for being a member of the Syrian inner ruling circles since the 1980s.
Talass’s character has always been an issue of Syrian debate, for he is the son of Mustafa Tlass, the minister of defense of the Syrian government for 32 years, from 1972 to 2004.
The name of Tlass, the father, also haunts the minds of Syrians. He gained a unique place within the thoughts of the Syrian people after the 1967 Naksa. Tlass’s name rose to fame with the deceased president Hafez al-Assad, who assigned him as his deputy. Hafez al-Assad was the Minister of Defense before he grabbed the reins to power in Syria through the 1970 coup d’état against Amin al-Hafez — the coup was later called the Corrective Movement by the al-Ba’ath Party.
It is not only the nominated head of the council that sparked contention among Syrians. A part of the controversy engulfing the council’s idea also originates from the rigid dichotomy between the political and military scenarios suggested for the future system of governance in Syria.
Former diplomat and non-resident research fellow at Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Danny Albaaj, told Enab Baldi that opting for a military council “means that the political opposition has indeed ceased to have a meaningful role.”
He added that, with this option, politicians will be left out of the game and conferred only with secondary roles to play.
Regarding the militants’ current forefront position, researcher Albaaj said that this relates to the need to control security services and reunite armed factions and forces, as well as to link them all to the “war against terrorism”, which to be the title of the upcoming Syrian governance system.
In this extensive article, Enab Baladi introduces the military council and answers questions such as: how did the council’s idea start? How realistic is it? What are the challenges to its formation process? And why only particular personalities have been brought under the limelight as its potential commanders?
What is the military council?
How was its idea first suggested?
On January 10, the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper sent a shock wave across the Syrian landscape. The newspaper reported that Moscow is uneasy with Damascus’s rhythm of action over the course of the constitutional process in Geneva—the work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee—, and that it is waiting for the US President Joe Biden’s administration to crystalize the new US policy on Syria and outline the broader Russia-US relationship.
Asharq Al-Awsat also said that Moscow received a new set of proposals from Syrian opposition figures, suggesting the formation of a joint military council that brings together the regime’s army, the opposition’s armed groups, and dissidents.
The first military council proposal was made by opposition figures from Moscow and Cairo platforms. The group suggested the formation of a military council to oversee a transitional phase, the duration of which is to be defined consensually, to enforce the United Nations (UN) Resolution 2254.
Asharq Al-Awsat said that it obtained a copy of the proposal, which reportedly laid out the structure of the council that is to encompass three categories: Retired army officers who served during Hafez al-Assad’s rule— who have great military influence and a celebrated social position; on-duty officers; and defector officers—who did not engage in the “military” conflict or play a role in the formation of non-state military factions.
The council will be formed to implement Resolution 2254 through ten steps, including “reforming, rehabilitating, and enabling the military establishment to eradicate terrorism, dismantling all armed groups, collecting weapons, and restoring state sovereignty over all its territories.”
Under the council, an “interim” government will be named that enjoys all the executive powers stipulated in the 2012 Constitution, a national conference inside Syria will be planned to form a constituent assembly to write a new constitution, detainees will be released, refugees will be returned, and international-level communication will be initiated in cooperation with the head of the council to mobilize support for reconstruction.
The proposal also articulated a list of suggested council tasks, including the removal of foreign forces from Syria, except for Russian forces that will assist the council and the interim government in achieving stability, implementing Resolution 2254, and forming a reconciliation commission, and “safeguarding the constitutional referendum, as well as parliamentary and presidential elections.”
The proposal addressed the council’s sources of legal reference, forwarding two options; applying the 2012 Constitution to the transitional phase, with transferring all constitution-stipulated powers of the republic’s president to the council; or else introducing an interim constitutional declaration, based on the 2015 Viana understandings, while holding discussions with Moscow as to guarantee that the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad— after the upcoming presidential elections—will issue a decree providing for establishing the council and its powers.
Military council re-proposed, why?
Odds are it will not be formed
Political researcher and director of Jusoor for studies, Muhammad Sarmini, said that one likely reason for bringing back such immature and deficient initiatives is that the Syrian issue has come to a political dead end.
Sarmini opted for an example to demonstrate the Syrian political deadlock. As the Syrian Constitutional Committee (SCC) reached an impasse in the fifth round and returned from Geneva having achieved nothing, “the Syrian regime is unready and unwilling to provide anything” and all the involved parties, behind them the international will, are once again proposing isolated initiatives, politically and in the media. Sarmini told Enab Baladi that the suggested initiatives, including the military council, are mostly patchy.
The SCC warped up its fifth session on 29 January 2021 without any progress towards the objectives it was created to achieve. The SCC did not draft basic principles or a mechanism to write a new constitution for Syria in line with Resolution No. 2245 which provided for forming a transitional governing body and holding new elections.
The UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen attributed the SCC’s unsuccessful fifth endeavor to lacking a clear understanding of how to progress with the committee’s work since its three constituent delegations—the regime’s, the opposition’s, and the civil society’s—continued to act as they did throughout previous rounds.
Researcher Sarmini added that the military council is “part of the political solution in Syria,” which upholds as a reference the UN Resolution 2254. He noted that the political solution, like the political process, is still in the first stage. Neither has yet had the opportunity to succeed or even mature.
According to Sarmini, the military council, the transitional governing body, the new constitution, and the UN-supervised elections, all are parts of a solution that the concerned states have not finalized yet.
The solution continues to be a subject for regional and international negotiations, chiefly between the US and Russia, while Syrians are busied with more sessions, initiatives, and negotiations that so far have achieved little to no results or change.
Unlike researcher Sarmini, Brigadier General Abdullah al-Ass’ad views the military council in a positive light. Al-Assa’dd told Enab Baladi that the council is the start of the ultimate solution to the entire Syrian issue, “from which Iran will come out a loser.”
He said that after forming the military council Iran will lose because it has been seeking to establish the influence of its loyalist military factions in Deir ez-Zor province and other areas in northeastern Syria, as it has been preparing infrastructure and building military camps to control the full range of the area.
Stumbling blocks to forming the military council
Enab Baladi conducted an online poll of opinion asking the audience whether the council’s idea sounds realistic, or not? And whether it is applicable in Syria or not? Of the total participants, only 37 percent said the idea is realistic and applicable, the remaining 62.5 percent said it was not.
The political researcher at Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Maan Talaa, said that the idea of a military council and the continuous meetings between the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and Presidential Special Envoy for the Middle East and Africa, Mikhail Bogdanov, and the former head of the Syrian National Coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, as well as the Moscow meeting between some opposition figures with the Russian Foreign Minister, are secondary efforts by Russia to maintain some lines of communication with certain groups of the opposition.
Talaa told Enab Baladi that by measuring available proposals, such as the military council, against the military relations and the established political situation, it becomes apparent that “these suggestions do not fit with the situation [on the ground] because some territories are overseen by international agents and various local allies.”
There are 477 military sites run by foreign forces across Syria, the wider military presence in the country’s modern history. Of these sites, 247 are operated by Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, 114 by Turkey, 83 by Russia, and 33 sites by the international coalition, according to figures documented by Jusoor for studies last January.
Moscow embraces the regime’s exact narrative of events and solutions and is practically unwilling to substitute the regime. Moscow is advocating elections and is trying to legitimize the presidential race. Researcher Talaa added that “Moscow can only adopt a few measures; mere maneuvers amounting to nothing but décor touches here and there.”
Researcher Sarmini said that one important dimension that should be available in the military council is that this military body must be a matter of “regional and international consensus. Also, it should be technically and logistically capable of carrying out its tasks” to help in reaching a future political solution in Syria.
He added that the council can meet these prerequisites only through “homogenous international empowerment, that recognizes the council’s objectives and has accord regarding the tools and means to realize these objectives.”
According to Sarmini, the major barrier to forming the military council is international actors’ inability to reach a final understanding of the Syrian affair. This is the reason why there has not been overall international support to establish and empower the council. Second to lacking international agreement comes the essential problem that “with its security and military structure, the regime would not be a partner or would not accept to have a partner.”
Future of non-state armed groups
One key question would need an answer should a military council be formed. That is, what fate lies ahead of the military factions across Syria?
Resolution 2254 provides that once concerned states agree on an ultimate solution in Syria it would be necessary to form a joint military body—in which all Syrians engage regardless of their sectarian affiliations—to reconfigure the Syrian military and security institutions and reshape these institutions and their command in line with the solutions.
Several local military forces share control in Syria, in addition to foreign military forces. The regime predominates almost throughout Syria, followed by the SDF, which holds reins to power in Raqqa, al-Hasakah and part of Deir ez-Zor in northeastern Syria, and then the Turkey-backed SNA, that presides over the countryside of Aleppo and the cities of Ras al-Ain, northwest of al-Hasakah, and Tal Abyad, north of Raqqa.
Control over Idlib province is also shared. Both the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham—former Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Nusra Front) before it brought many factions under its flag in 2017—and the National Front for Liberation (NFL)—operating under the SNA—are regnant in the area.
The relationship between these military parties and any future political initiative in Syria continues to be a heated debate. To have the ability to dissolve themselves and then join an inclusive military formation; to vanish and reemerge under new names for political or social acceptance, or even to escape sanctions or evade designation on the lists of “terrorism”, these military entities have to be independent politically; namely, they do not operate as the military wing to any political entity. While the independence criterion does not apply to all Syrian armed groups and military factions, many are on the lists of terrorism.
The HTS, the dominant military group in Idlib, is designated as a terrorist group by the UN Security Council, while the SDF is designated thus by Turkey.
Turkey, backed by opposition armed groups, launched three military operations against the SDF, to push the latter away from the border strip. Turkey embarked on Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 in northern Aleppo, without immediate clashes; Olive Branch in Afrin region, northwestern Aleppo, in March 2018; and Operation Peace Spring in the areas east of the Euphrates River in October 2019.
Turkey considers the People’s Protection Units (YPG), SDF’s core body, an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), also designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US, the EU and several Arb countries.
The defector Brigadier General Abdullah al-Ass’ad told Enab Baladi that the council was promoted among active defector officers. There were also calls to gather force and will at the hands of these officers to help them influence the military factions operating in the “liberated” areas. These measures seek to divert factions from their agendas and press them into integrating into the council.
Brigadier General al-Ass’ad said that the council is unlikely to play an effective role in the beginning. Immediate post-formation challenges will arise, most prominently is that the council will have to face the remnants of the regime’s forces. “These are fighters who have divided their loyalty to various parties on sectarian and political grounds.”
He added that the council can “exercise greater powers and have larger influence and privileges” in the opposition-held areas compared to regime-controlled ones because the factions that are fighting next to the Syrian regime “are of a complex structure. These factions believe that they will be eliminated or grow less operative with the removal of the regime they are protecting and fighting for.”
In addition to the political dimensions that govern the factions’ relationship with the council, there is a legal dimension that pertains to the council’s powers. Legally, the council is supposed to be an executive tool in the hands of the transitional governing body. Otherwise, should the council grow tyrannical and obsessive about controlling all the state’s levers this would only mean a return to the military rule that already exists.
According to Al-Assad, the council must be aware of its role and function, as it will form the nucleus of a “Syrian national army” for all Syrians. Accordingly, it is necessary to restructure and overturn all the organizational foundations on which the regime’s army was built.
He said that some Syrian parties welcomed the idea of forming a military council since all fighting factions and political bodies are looking forward to the al-Assad’s departure from power.
At the same time, he stressed that this awaited military body will encounter difficulties and challenges, because it will have operational capacity over the existing military forces, including security branches, intelligence agencies, divisions, and military brigades.
Brigadier General al-Ass’ad said that there will not be discord between the SNA, operating in southern Syria today, and the military council. Once it arrives inside Syria, the council’s role will be expanded to attract all military forces. That is the council will transform into an inclusive national army, embraced by all parties across the political and international spectrums.
Administrating the transitional phase will not be entrusted solely to the military council, which is a part of the transitional governing body. The council will, rather, be “preoccupied with expelling the militias that the regime brought in to support its forces, in addition to what the regime calls auxiliary forces,” such as the National Defense that was formed after regime forces failed to stop the armed opposition factions’ progress.
Manaf Tlass nominated over and over again
Researcher Sarmini said that there are technical and political considerations that the military council should take into account. Technically, the council must include all security and military specializations. Politically, the council must show regard to different balances that countries concerned with the Syrian issue move along. In addition to these considerations, such councils, whether military or civil, are usually formed with heightened consideration to regional representation and various components of society.
If the military council is to succeed when it is formed, “its members must be active figures capable of working together, who own the will to move the security and military establishment and Syria in general to a better standing.”
Whenever the idea of the military council was brought on the political solutions’ list, one specific candidate commander seemed to garner attention every time. It was always Manaf Tlass.
Even though Tlass did not resume any position within the ranks of the opposition after he defected, his name reverberated with the proposed solutions to the Syrian affair over the past ten years, particularly military solutions and the formation of a military council. There was a consensus between the opposition and the regime on his character.
In this respect, former diplomat Dani Albaaj said that there has not been a prominent figure other than Manaf Tlass to command the council under its proposed structure. “The council needs a character that is exactly in the middle.” He added that nominating Tlass to this position has to do with the military council’s concept, rather than the Tlass’ personality.
“The military council, membered half regime-affiliates and half opposition-affiliates, requires a character that can play the intermediary between the two parties, a character approved by the two parties. Such characters are very few. The opposition does not have such a figure that could play the needed role, and the same applies to the regime. Approval, here, pertains to the militants, since the figure sought is not a political one,” Alaaj added.
Accordingly, only a figure close to both sides, like Tlass, can function as needed. This figure was part of the regime’s inner circles and still have relations with regime-affiliates, inside figures. These relations are the “key card” that Tlass has.
Tlass also maintains strong relations with the armed opposition groups, “that is why he will probably be named the council president if the military council is to succeed.”
First time the council was proposed
It failed with the assassination of the crisis cell
Albaaj said that the military council’s idea is not new. Forming such a council was proposed at the beginning of the revolution and it was supposed to follow the Egyptian paradigm. “The military embarks on a coup, takes control to its hands, removes the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, and oversees a peaceful transition of power, with limited democratic privileges.”
He said that the council always loomed over solution discussions and one nominated presidency board was the Crisis Management Cell, but the assassination of its members doomed this option to failure, while “Manaf Tlass escaped because he was part of this structure.”
On 18 July 2012, a bombing targeted a meeting of the Crisis Management Cell in the National Security Building in the capital Damascus causing the death of the Minister of Defense, General Dawoud Rajiha, his deputy Assef Shawkat, and head of the cell Hasan Turkmani, and head of the National Security Office, Hisham Ikhtiyar.
The attack also caused the injury of the Minister of Interior, Muhammad al-Shaar, with conflicting reports about the fate of other personalities who attended the meeting.
The cell was formed to suppress the revolution at that time.
Following the attack, al-Assad appointed General Fahd Jassem al-Freij as the minister of defense, who was then Chief of Staff, and Ali Mamlouk as the head of the National Security Office, with Abdulfatah Qudsiya as his deputy, and Major General Muhammad Deeb Zaitoun as the head of the State Security Department.
Politicians described the bombing of the cell meeting as an operation of “planned assassinations” under the security method adopted by the al-Assad family, which started with Hafez’s assassination of a number of his close associates, most notably Amin al-Hafez and Salah Jadid, to assassinations that took place outside the borders of Syria.
The details of the bombing in Rawda Square in Damascus in 2012 continue to be shrouded in mystery to the day, even though the attack on the cell was claimed by the armed factions of the “Free Army.” The regime called the attack a security breach, while others pointed accusations at the regime and Iran.
In the aftermath of the attack, matters grow complicated, and the idea of the military council was abandoned, only to reappear about two years ago. Again, Manaf Tlass was among the major candidates suggested, and he was a figure agreeable to both the regime and the opposition and both consented to deal with him.
Albaaj traced the roots of the council’s idea, which was proposed back then on the claim that “politicians cannot control the security situation on the ground due to chaos and the proliferation of weapons.” The idea was then put on hold for a while when it became clear that “the [coalition] lacked political leaders that could play an effective role on the ground,” particularly with the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) and the increase in power the armed group witnessed in 2014 and 2015.
The idea of the council was further shelved after the Astana talks in 2017—guaranteed by Russia, Iran and Turkey— and Turkish forces intervention as they started commanding military operations, and the establishment of the US-led coalition to fight IS, as well as the formation of the US-backed SDF in northern and eastern Syria.
However, with the horizonless array of options for a political solution today, the idea of the military council and the name of Manaf Tlass both resurfaced.
Some reactions to the military council proposal
Since it was brought back to the table of discussion in early February, the idea urged reactions from both detractors and proponents, whose views ranged as follows:
7 February 2021: an article advocating the idea
The Russian Nezavisimaya Gazeta published an article by the Syrian pro-opposition journalist Yasser Badawi, who also called for forming a military council “through accord between the actors in Syria, most notably Russia.”
The article said that “There are many statements from tribes representatives, activists, and Arab politicians, calling to assign the presidency of this structure to Major General Manaf Tlass, son of the former Syrian Minister of Defense, Major General Mustafa Tlass.”
10 February 2021: Cairo and Moscow platforms deny making the proposal
The opposition platforms Moscow and Cairo denied the news that they have submitted a proposal to Moscow, demanding the formation of a joint Syrian military council that brings together the regime and the opposition over the course of a transitional period.
In a former statement to Enab Baladi, the member of the Cairo platform, Firas al-Khalidi, said that “the document is false and fabricated.”
Also, the head of the Moscow platform, Qadri Jamil, said that such a document does not exist, and tweeted that “the news is unrealistic.” He slammed the newspaper and said that reported contents of the proposal seek to “mix up the cards of the political process, which circumstances have grown appropriate.”
12 February 2021: Jamal Soleiman said he is behind the idea
Amidst all the denial, the opposition figure Jamal Soleiman said that he is the person behind the idea. He stated that he called for forming a military council to run the transitional phase in Syria and that he has discussed the idea with Russia, stressing that there is a group that has faith in the proposal.
On his Facebook account, he wrote that he personally, beyond his official capacity as a member of the Cairo platform, has proposed the idea of the military council as an alternative to the transitional governing body proposed by the Geneva Communiqué. He added that he discussed the proposal during his latest Moscow-held meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, on 21 January.
On 14 February 2021: a joint statement advocates the idea
On 14 February, the Syrian Legalists Committee and the National Rally for Free Syrian Workers in State Institutions issued a joint statement in support of the proposal to form a Transitional Military Council, which is to play a major role under the supervision of the transitional governing body included in the international resolutions on the political solution in Syria.
On 16 February 2021: Russia denies discussing the idea
Days after Soleiman’s confirmation, the Russian president’s special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, was quoted by Russian RT as saying that there were no talks about the military council. The special envoy also said that this was “a misleading [statement] aimed at undermining political talks and process.”
5 March 2021: SDF embraces Manaf Tlass as a candidate
The SDF revealed that it had contacted the defector Brigadier General Manaf Tlass and discussed the formation of the transitional military council, expressing its readiness to join the military body.
The SDF spokesperson Gabriel Kino said that the formation of the military council is an essential step on the path to the solution in Syria, on the condition that “a political entity is founded that represents all political forces with tasks that complement each other.”
The spokesperson, who welcomed Manaf Tlass as a candidate commander of the council, said that “The SDF and Manaf Tlass engaged in dialogues concerning the council’s tasks, purpose and the ideas put forward about it, and also to reach understandings that satisfy all parties.”
7 March 2021: Michel Kilo calls the idea unrealistic
The Syrian opposition figure Michel Kilo said that the idea of forming a military council is unrealistic. He posed the following question: “What will the military council do after all the parties to the Syrian conflict have taken their share of Syria even before having a solution?”
He added that “If some party wants to give up on its share without an international understanding; then, we will have nothing to do with that party.”
10 March 2021: Moscow platform denies the news a second time
Muhannad Deliqan, a member of the Moscow platform, denied that members of the platform participated in a meeting to discuss the military council.
He tweeted that “there is absolutely no truth to the news that members of the (Moscow) platform met in Paris, on 26 February, with a Syrian figure to discuss the so-called military council.”
He added that the military council is stillborn because it is an attempt to disrupt the UN resolution 2254 and fail the idea of the transitional governing body, adding that the council was proposed “to give the time required for the various opposing parties to pass their entitlements away from resolution 2254.”
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