Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Syrian Military Council: A Silver Lining?

As the ramifications of the Syrian crisis continue, talks about forming a Syrian military council led by dissident brigade general Manaf Tlass resurfaced.

Syrian Military Council
Turkey’s Prior Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu shakes hands with defected Syrian General Manaf Tlass in Ankara, on July 26, 2012. Adem ALTAN / AFP

Hussein Ali Alzoubi

As the ramifications of the Syrian crisis continue, talks about forming a Syrian military council led by dissident brigade general Manaf Tlass resurfaced. News about the council started spreading amid the political deadlock in the country, while the Constitutional Committee’s activities reached a dead end.

Lieutenant colonel and council member Ahmed al-Qanatri revealed that several meetings took place in Paris intending to establish a “national military institution with an organised and upright doctrine.”

Several members from the Syrian military council – led by Manaf – and high-level US executives attended these meetings. Video conferences were also held with Syrian officers residing in Syria. Al-Qanatri confirmed a consensus among various Syrian parties and coordination between council members and officers who are still in position within the current military institute. Yet, the officers criticise the military institution’s performance and the way it assumed authority.

The concept of a military council led by Manaf first emerged five years ago. At the time, reports of Manaf’s meetings with Russian, American and Arab officials about leading a transitional stage circulated. It is noteworthy that Manaf is the son of Mustafa Tlass, who was the minister of defence in Hafez al-Assad’s government and during the early period of Bashar al-Assad’s term.

An Insufficient Step

Major General Muhammad al-Haj Ali, the highest-ranking defected officer from the Syrian regime forces, believes that forming a military council is not wrong, even if established after the failure of the political course. However, he thinks the problem lies in trying different approaches individually. He stressed to Fanack the necessity of integration and synchronisation of the military and political paths.

From this standpoint, al-Haj stressed the need for the council to adhere to a transitional governing body with full authority. The body must consist of a Supreme Judicial Council and a Transitional National Council with oversight and legislative functions. The military council must be subordinate to the transitional government, implementing its policies, protecting it and defending its legitimacy.

At the same time, al-Qanatri confirmed that the council’s leadership continues to engage with all Syrian political, economic and cultural currents. He added, “The Syrian crisis is complicated and cannot be resolved by military means only. Rather, there must be integration between the military mechanism and all effective forces in Syrian society. Accordingly, the military council provides a common ground for these parties, which support its proposals.”

Earlier, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) revealed that there were talks with Tlass regarding the formation of a military council to lead the country during a transitional phase. Kino Gabriel, the official spokesman of the SDF, said that “forming a military council is a foundational step to resolve the Syrian crisis and that the SDF is ready to participate with the military body.” He noted that the Kurdish forces welcomed the idea of a military council and a political body representing all political forces with complementary tasks.

UN Resolution No. 2254 provides for the formation of a “transitional governing body” that includes a “military council” under the auspices of the UN. Therefore, the military’s supporters of this proposal believe that the council’s formation will mark the beginning of a comprehensive solution to the Syrian crisis.

Absence of International Consensus

Al-Haj says that the formation of the military council requires consensus among not only Syrian parties but also regional and international forces that control Syria’s affairs. He believes that the council should have been formed ten years ago but thinks that its establishment did not happen then because said forces lacked a serious desire to resolve the Syrian crisis. He adds, “If these countries welcome forming the military council and can enforce it, why don’t they work on establishing a transitional governing body according to the UN resolutions?”

The former head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Nasr al-Hariri, agrees with al-Haj about the absence of the international consensus required to resolve the Syrian crisis. Al-Hariri called the ongoing communication between the international community and Syrians, whether military or political, positive.

Nevertheless, he asserted to Fanack that there were no significant steps towards forming the council in the meantime. From his perspective, after the Russian-Ukrainian war, the international circumstances have reached a stage that prevents any international consensus that would generate serious steps towards a solution in Syria.

Al-Qanatri had already confirmed that the US administration approved the formation of the military council. In this regard, he said, “The recent meetings included US officials and politicians, many of whom expressed American satisfaction with this project.”

He added, “The military council has several communication channels with the US and its institutions. Through these channels, the US emphasises its support of projects aligned with UN Resolution No. 2254.

In this context, the Military Council presented some proposals that received a positive response. However, the international circumstances and the previous stalemate contributed to delaying the implementation of some projects so far.”

Russia and Iran

In 2021, prominent figures from the Syrian opposition, including actor Jamal Soliman, in Moscow proposed the formation of a military council, which was, however, instantly rejected by Russia. Alexander Lavrentiev, Special Envoy of the Russian President for Syria, stated on the matter that the suggested council constituted “deliberate misinformation aimed at torpedoing the talks and the political process.”

At the same time, Soliman confirmed that he was the one to propose the idea, noting that he had suggested it to the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a recent meeting.

In this regard, al-Hariri says, “Russia and Iran do not desire a political solution in Syria and continue to rely on a military solution. I do not think they will welcome the idea, whether it be negotiations leading to a political solution in a UN resolution context or even the notion of forming a military council.”

He added, “The regime is not so different from its Russian and Iranian supporters, as it rejected everything from the beginning. The regime continues to rely on a military solution. I do not think it will welcome the idea of forming a military council because it is haunted by a vengeful desire towards its dissents, in particular because their defections spotlighted the division within the regime’s institutions and led to a deteriorating performance of these same institutions.”

On the other hand, al-Qanatri believes in the council’s ability to influence the Russian and Iranian positions. He said, “The absence of genuine representation of the Syrian people in most of the existing authorities contributes to some countries’ control over Syrian decision-making. If adequate representation of the Syrian people was available, the control of certain countries, including Iran, over Syria would change since all Syrian parties, including those residing in the regime-controlled areas, reject this interference.”

Fears of Military Rule Return

Evoking the option of the military council as an essential step for a solution may mean, for some, an explicit declaration to remove politicians from the equation and let the military take control of matters. This proposition reinforces Syrians’ fears of a return to military rule if the council is formed with considerable powers.

Former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki had advised the Syrians against the formation of the military council and to reject solutions suggested by the military, saying that the misfortune of the Arab people was military rule.

In this context, al-Haj affirms his rejection of a military takeover of authority since the army is a tool for implementing and securing policies, not politics. He adds, “Regimes that rely on armed force and intelligence services no longer have a place in politics. People have become more aware and will not accept those who have turned homelands into private farms for themselves and their families and treat people as part of their property.”

As for al-Hariri, he believes that the Syrians will welcome the military council if it is formed under a transitional governing body, as stipulated in UN Resolution 2254. He adds, “Historically, Syrians don’t view the army’s role in the state and society with satisfaction, especially after the revolution and after the army has transformed into militias that kill Syrians and help the regime control the country. Despite that, I am optimistic about the military council’s ability to win over the Syrians because the greatest reliance will be on the dissident officers and the honourable individuals who sided with the revolution and stood against injustice.”

Regarding the council’s plan to win over the Syrians, al-Qanatri said that they focus on “providing what Syrian society lacks in the activities of those who claim to represent the Syrians.” He believes “the Syrian people now want transparency, clarity and projects that perform as advertised.”

As al-Qanatri confirmed that the council is distancing itself from ambiguous projects, he stressed the need to build on the national dimension and independence when addressing the Syrian matter. As per the demands of the Syrian grassroots level, these are the most important elements to gain Syrian society’s trust and, therefore, the pillars that the council tries to adhere to in its plans.

Despite al-Qanatri’s statements, there is no solid foundation that would allow the military council to play an influential role in solving the Syrian crisis. In other words, the existence of such a council is not possible in the current Syrian context with all its complexities and conflicts of interest among international and regional players.

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