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Expert Roundup on Riyadh’s Opposition Conference

As Saudi Arabia’s Syrian opposition talks wrapped up on Thursday, Syria Deeply asked our community of experts – including Hassan Hassan of Chatham House and Ryan Crocker, the former US Ambassador to Syria and Lebanon – how likely it was that the Riyadh group could successfully represent the Syrian opposition in negotiations with the Assad government.

Written by Dylan Collins Published on Read time Approx. 10 minutes
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Despite a few bumps in the road, last week’s opposition conference in Riyadh accomplished its goal of bringing together different sides of Syria’s political and armed opposition, creating a memorandum of principles for negotiations with Bashar al-Assad’s government in January.

Although the meeting marks the most serious attempt yet to unify Syria’s fragmented opposition, its success was largely overshadowed by the last-minute withdrawal of the powerful Islamist faction Ahrar al-Sham.

Even though the group’s political delegate, Labib Nahhas, did in fact later end up signing the document, several high-ranking leaders who were not present in Riyadh later confirmed their decision not to sign, creating some confusion.

More than 100 members of Syria’s political and militant opposition attended the conference, but the absence of several key players active inside Syria has created questions about the alliance’s viability.

Aside from Ahrar al-Sham, the Riyadh conference excluded the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), al-Nusra Front and the main Kurdish force in Syria, which controls large swaths of territory in the northeast and has proven to be the U.S.-led coalition’s most effective ground partner in the battle against ISIS.

Syria Deeply asked two prominent experts from our community whether this group could successfully represent the entirety of Syria’s fragmented opposition.

Hassan Hassan

Middle East analyst at the U.K.-based policy institute Chatham House

Despite the ambiguity of whether Ahrar al-Sham signed or not, their presence at the meeting was interesting for two reasons. First of all, they sat with people like Luay Hussein, Jihad Makdissi and others from the National Coordination Committee. The fact that they brought together the two sides of the spectrum when it comes to the Syrian opposition was quite significant. And for Ahrar al-Sham to actually show up, that speaks to the political and moral weight Saudi Arabia has on the Syrian opposition. It also was a clear demonstration of the feeling within the opposition that they need to get their act together with the Russian involvement, the Turkish and Russian tensions … all that brought the regional actors, especially Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and the factions that work with them, together. They realized they couldn’t afford to bicker. That’s the background, at least, as to how they were able to get them all to Riyadh.

This came after the agreement in Vienna that Jordan would suggest some names for designation on a proposed “terrorist blacklist.” The fact that Saudi Arabia would invite Ahrar al-Sham makes it hard to imagine that Jordan would include their name on its list. Jordan is an ally to Saudi Arabia, regardless of anything else.

It was foolish on the part of Ahrar al-Sham to withdraw. It was selfish. They wanted to score points against Jaish al-Islam and other Islamists groups and say they’re the true representatives of the revolution. But I think it backfired because even some of their truest supporters, that have always defended and supported Ahrar al-Sham, have said they were disappointed. It’s not smart, it’s not timely and it’s just counter productive – regardless of whether they signed of not. It showed some of their true colors. Like I’ve said before, Ahrar al-Sham might agree to things on paper, but it’s just politics to them. They do it to appease their donors. When push comes to shove, they just back out.

Ahrar al-Sham is proving that not only are they not moderate, they’re sly. They’re probably more dangerous than al-Nusra. At least al-Nusra is clear about their ideology. Labib Nahhas was there, a person who people say represents the side [of Ahrar al-Sham] pushing for moderation, and he couldn’t even sign the paper [Editor’s note: Nahhas later signed the declaration following their withdrawal]. That tells us something about who the boss is in the organization. Ahrar al-Sham, in my opinion, has always been closer to al-Nusra in terms of their vision for Syria. Whatever happens, Ahrar al-Sham will prove to be a stumbling block in any potential change for Syria. For them, it’s not about Bashar al-Assad, it’s about dominance.

Jaish al-Islam and the Southern Front, on the other hand, are more local and malleable. But I don’t think the meeting was a real shift in unifying their positions in the conflict. It was an understanding between them and their backers that they need to get together, and establish some degree of consensus, but that could collapse at any moment.

For Ahrar al-Sham it was a different story. Many people on Twitter said signing the document was an un-Islamic thing to do. They rejected on ideological grounds. The others agreed to it on pragmatic grounds, but who knows how long that will last. I have a sense that the agreement doesn’t signal a real shift in the way they view the conflict.

I’m ambivalent about any chances for success in bringing the two sides together. The reality on the ground doesn’t indicate that they are inching toward any kind of agreement. In fact, the sectarian lines, and lines between the regime and anti-regime forces are deepening. The groups are entrenching themselves. Al-Nusra is preparing for something big in the north. Generally, the reality on the ground isn’t promising.

The reality on the ground is becoming worse. The two sides are entrenching themselves. The Vienna Talks and the ongoing political process were triggered by the Russian intervention. It was a way for the Russians to buy time, but also to send “soothing words” to the West and the regional allies of the opposition that they are willing work on something together. The talk of sending anti-aircraft missiles to the opposition have completely disappeared, and that’s a result of the West’s aversion to engaging Russia on the ground. Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and the West have all been reluctant to escalate against the Russians. I think this is just another round of political process that will lead nowhere.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker

Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria (1998 – 2001) and to Lebanon (1990 – 1993)

Well, sitting here talking to you in Beirut, I’m uncomfortably reminded of the Lebanese Civil War. I spent six years here, three as a political councilor at the embassy in Beirut, and three as ambassador subsequently, and I remember painfully all that went through then to eventually end the war. There were conferences here, the Tayiff Conference in Saudi Arabia echoes a bit of what we’ve just seen this week in Riyadh. But do you know how things were actually ended? It ended because Syria dominated. The Syrian army moved through in 1990 and forced Michel Aoun out of the presidential palace. That’s what ended the war. It was a Syrian predominance of power and control. Well, there’s no Syria around today to exert that kind of control in Syria. So, I applaud the effort in Saudi Arabia, and I applaud the Saudi effort in bringing together a lot of people, some of whom they really don’t like, but my expectations are under control in how this will go. The Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra are not there at all. Ahrar al-Sham saying several different things, but are ambivalent at best about the process, and we’re still talking about simply getting into the room and who’ll be in it. And we already know, that in the best-case scenario, and the opposition and government actually sit down in the same room, the best case, you still have the real heavyweights outside the room. And you also have, just like the Lebanese Civil War, we have a regional and international cold war going on: Iran, Saudi Arabia, U.S., Russia. Without some meetings of the minds there, it’s really hard to say either internally in Syria, regionally in the Middle East, or even internationally, it’s hard for me to say that the pieces are falling into place for an actual settlement.

It’s very important to pursue this, and to try and fuse the Vienna process and the Riyadh process together. But thinking back on Lebanon, looking at Iraq today, these complex conflicts have some dynamics in common, and I’m afraid the dynamics in the Syrian conflict are kind of like those in the Lebanon conflict in the early 1980s.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Senior Advisor, Gulf State Analytics

The Riyadh Conference produced a foundation – albeit a weak one – as the Geneva diplomatic efforts move forward. Saudi Arabia wants to guarantee that the Kingdom’s interests are well represented in the myriad groups representing the “opposition” in settling the Syrian crisis as the process moves into 2016. It should be noted that the Syrian National Congress sat down with the Damascus-based Syrian National Coordination Body. Missing from the Riyadh meeting were any Kurdish or other minority interests. Thus, the Riyadh Conference joint statement saying that delegates had backed a “democratic mechanism through a pluralistic regime that represents all sectors of the Syrian people (that) would not discriminate on religious, sectarian or ethic grounds” is already faulty.

The wide array of Syrian groups, interests, and fighters, agreed to a transition plan without Syrian President Bashar Assad by keeping the state’s integrity. While it is notable to keep the Syrian state intact, perhaps in a federal system, there still lies the clear and real fact that Russia and Iran, and some Arab states, will not negotiate with some of the signatories to the final Riyadh Conference document given the current opposition spectrum. There are too many “bonds” that link some components of the Syrian opposition to al-Qaida and Islamic State and their offshoot brigades.

It needs to be noted that there remains significant obstacles to the Riyadh conference: Primarily, the very notion that Riyadh is catering to extremists. This interpretation may doom the conference results in the near term as the diplomatic process continues. Unfortunately the kingdom is trying to herd cats that are unworkable together and outside of diplomatic norms in defining who is exactly an extremist. Other Arab states, and particularly Russia, are aware of this religo-ideological fact from the ground.

Furthermore, the Riyadh Conference results may will serve as ammunition to those pundits who argue that Saudi Wahhabism is behind the funding and arming of the opposition who switch alliances quickly based on geo-spacial requirements on the local level regardless of the severity of their religious belief.

It should not be lost on observers that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) held a significant summit meeting simultaneous to the Riyadh Conference hosting Syrian opposition groups. This confluence signals that, at least on the surface, the GCC stands united on the concept of a Syrian settlement. On the Syrian crises, the GCC supports the Geneva 1 Agreement of June 2012 and solutions that aim to form a transitional body with wider powers to maintain Syria’s sovereignty, independence and integrity of its national territory. While individual GCC states may, behind the scenes, see Russia as an integral part of the Syrian negotiating process, the idea of GCC unity at this critical time is paramount given regional geopolitical dynamics.

Thus, the picture is mixed. While there is a glimmer of hope to move forward through diplomatic means, the honesty and integrity of those individuals hosted in Riyadh remains to be seen by their action on the multi-tiered Syrian battle space.

Salman Shaikh

Founder and CEO of the Shaikh Group, and former director of the Brookings Doha Center

Well, I think it should be considered in the context of a first step. They’re going in the right direction, although there are mixed expectations about whether anything can really be achieved. I think many people would say that it doesn’t have the full range of opposition personalities, but it does have a mixture of the main political coalitions, armed factions and some useful independents. It’s the best effort we’ve seen so far. And I think they’ve actually made progress in terms of establishing a platform and identifying appropriate people that could be part of negotiations in the future. I think people will be quite satisfied, particularly on the opposition supporting side of the international community and in the Vienna framework. The opposition has, more or less, come together and it is putting the ball back in the court of the regime. And of course the regime has a pretty tight structure of in terms of people who will be involved in negotiations. But whether these negotiations will take place or not, I don’t know. But I think it is a success. It was a bit of a risk. It could have all fallen apart. Now I know there’s the issue of Ahrar al-Sham, but to be honest, Ahrar al-Sham was pretty well split going into this. The latest I’ve heard is that they’ve rejoined, but it has created a lot of turmoil within the organization. The organization is in a pretty fragile state between those who are more on the political side and those inside doing the fighting.

But does this group have enough of a presence on the ground? It has 10 members of the armed factions who will be part of the negotiating team. That’s the largest group. I believe there will be nine from the so-called official political external opposition and then six from the NCC and five independents, so I think it’s got as good a chance as any. In fact, there has been a convergence of opposition views, over the last year or so – something that we in our own work with the Track 2 discussions have been following closely and I think we’ve slightly contributed to this as well.

The principles that have been sketched out have been discussed amongst opposition members in various forms for the last year or so. So again, there are many people that will detract from it, but I think it’s a first step, and I think it’s an important step and it’s a success for Saudi Arabia and the neighboring countries that have supported the efforts.

As for the Kurds, Hakim Bashar, who is a member of the Kurdish People’s National Congress, is part of the negotiating team. And I believe that there is another one or two [Kurdish members] who were at the meeting. But sure, the YPG element and their parallel meeting is something that will need to be looked it. There should be more of an effort to try and bring the Kurds in as much as they can. The NCC (the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change) was present in quite strong numbers, with the exception of Haytham Manna, and that group does have reach within Syria, including the YPG. So I guess this is an ongoing project. I don’t think the Kurdish factor at this stage has hampered the results of saying, “hey, there is a platform that is being established, and a negotiating team structure being developed.” As I said, it’s a first step, but it’s something that can be built on.

Top image: Abdulaziz bin Saqr, center, chairman of the Gulf Research Council, speaks as Louay Safi, right, spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, and Hind Kabawat, left, a member of the elected committee that will negotiate with the Syrian regime, listen during a press conference after a two-day meeting of Syrian opposition groups in Riyadh on Thursday, December 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

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