Syrian opposition groups meeting in Riyadh have agreed on a common strategy for the future of their country. But not all groups support the agreement. Some were not even invited.
Khaled Khoja, president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, was confident: “The Syrian opposition is ready to commit itself to a political solution to the crisis in Syria.” Shortly thereafter, his organization joined other opposition groups meeting in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, to sign a statement of intent on cooperation. Yet one organization pulled out of the talks: the powerful rebel group Ahrar al-Sham angrily left the conference, feeling that rebel groups were underrepresented at the negotiations.
The Saudi-led conference is part of an internationally agreed roadmap designed to bring an end to some four-and-a-half years of bloodshed. To date, Syria’s civil war has claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people. Pressure to do something about the situation is growing: Many European countries want to slow the flow of refugees coming from the Middle East, and Syria’s neighbors fear being drawn deeper into the conflict. Beyond that, the bloody terrorist attacks carried out by “Islamic State” (IS) in Paris this November made it clear that terror and violence from Syria have reached Europe.
Assad needs to step down
There was a lot at stake in Riyadh. Samir Nashar of the National Coalition warned that without an agreement, the splintered opposition could drift even further apart. A fight over whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would have to leave office soon, or after the end of a transitional phase, seemed possible. However, in their statement of principle, the opposition representatives in attendance later emphasized that Assad and those loyal to him would have to give up power, “at the beginning of the transitional phase.”
Beyond the National Coalition and Ahrar al-Sham, representatives from Jaysh al-Islam, as well as other political and military groups, accepted the invitation to the conference. Several opposition representatives tolerated by the Assad regime also attended. They all demanded that foreign powers leave the country. That demand was directed at fighters from Lebanon and Iran, as well as the Russian air force, all of whom are supporting the Assad regime. The opposition groups also agreed to create a committee for upcoming negotiations with the regime.
Riyadh funneling billions to rebels
There is also a lot at stake for the Saudis. The leadership of the ultra-conservative state has given billions of dollars to various rebel groups in hopes that they could topple the Assad regime – thus far, to no avail. Support from Iran and Russia has allowed Assad and his loyalists to maintain their grip on power, prolonging the military stalemate. The government in Riyadh needs to get at least some of its political objectives pushed through at this point if it hopes to substantiate its claims as the predominant power in the region.
The opposition conference follows on the heels of November’s Syria peace talks in Vienna. There, 20 countries agreed on a roadmap for Syria. According to that plan, government and opposition groups are to negotiate with one another in January. The objectives are a ceasefire agreement, then the establishment of a transitional government that will organize free elections. But such talks will only make sense if opposition groups agree on what they seek to attain. The first round of similar negotiations, held in Geneva in 2012, broke down due to irreconcilable positions held by various opposition parties.
The Saudis want to avoid a similar situation this time. Yet, once again, not all of the resistance groups playing a role on the battlefield were invited to the conference. The terror group “Islamic State” (IS), the al-Qaeda offshoot al-Nusra Front and a number of other groups received no invitation because no one is willing to speak with them publicly. Nevertheless, they control large parts of the country. Middle East expert Daniel Gerlach told German public radio station Deutschlandfunk: “Of course there are certain movements and jihadist groups at the radical end of the Syrian opposition spectrum that were not invited, but those groups will still have to be won over if there is to be any chance of achieving some kind of ceasefire in Syria.”
Kurds organize their own conference
The Kurds were also not at the conference. The National Coalition did not want them in Riyadh because they claim that the Kurds are not fighting the Assad regime, but rather other Arab rebel groups. The Kurds convened their own parallel conference in the northeastern Syrian city of Al-Malikiyah. Their primary goal is to coordinate their efforts in the fight against “IS.”
It remains unclear whether the opposition groups have found a lasting compromise. All too often alliances among the regime’s opponents have failed, due to conflicting ideologies, or the interests of foreign powers.