Expanded Syrian opposition looks ready to deal with Damascus regime
Beirut- After much delay, the Syrian opposition held a conference in Riyadh November 22-24 aimed at achieving two main objectives. One was to create a united opposition delegation ahead of the eighth round of UN-mandated Geneva talks, scheduled for November 28. Secondly, members of the opposition drafted a political road map for the Syrian endgame, stressing that there is no military solution to the nearly seven-year conflict.
Although they called on President Bashar Assad to step down, stressing that he had no role in the Syrian transition, they also said that no side could bring preconditions to the negotiating table. Previously they had stressed that nothing would start before Assad left the scene.
Seventy of the Syrian delegates in Riyadh were political independents, along with 22 members of the Turkey-backed Syrian National Coalition, 21 members of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) and 14 representatives of the National Coordination Committee (NCC), a Syria-based opposition group. Additionally, ten people represented the Cairo platform and seven attended on behalf of the Moscow platform, while 21 were from the armed opposition.
The Russians have long complained that the Syrian opposition was fragmented and divided, demanding a unified delegation of Syrian interlocutors at the Geneva process. Moscow was unhappy with the dominance of the Saudi-backed HNC’s monopoly of the opposition, insisting on injecting it with Kurdish politicians and a variety of Moscow-backed figures, who were shunned by Ankara and Riyadh either as “regime friendly” or “regime created.”
Technically, that monopoly is now finished, at the urging of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who received Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Moscow last October and sent his special envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, for talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz on November 19. Days before the Riyadh summit Putin met Assad in Sochi, followed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian leader Hassan Rohani, seemingly putting the final touches on what his endgame will look like in Syria.
The Riyadh conference stressed the need to create a democratic system in Syria, with UN-monitored presidential and parliamentary elections. However, differences between the opposition and their sponsors remain. While the delegates in Saudi Arabia called for a transitional governmental body to be established in place of the Assad regime, Moscow and Tehran have consistently argued that “transitional government” meant moving from war to peace and from one constitution to another, rather than regime change. At best, they are calling for power-sharing with the opposition, while underlining their commitment to letting Assad run for another term in office when his current tenure ends in 2021.
Days before the conference started, several opposition figures warned that huge pressure was being applied on them to accept Assad as a de facto reality or be pushed out of the political process completely. Others who insisted on his departure were not invited to Riyadh, prompting them to present their collective resignations, crying foul play.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov quickly commented on this single development, saying that it helps unite the opposition on a “realistic and constructive” basis.
Veteran opposition member Suheir al-Atassi resigned in solidarity with her comrades, writing on Twitter: “They asked us to accept Assad or there would be no room for us.
“Our resignation is a response to an overall international tendency to apply pressure only on the opposition to accept Assad in the transition period,” al-Atassi added. When asked who was applying such pressure, she replied that no single country was behind it, but it reflected an overall mood in the international community.
The figures excluded from Riyadh who collectively resigned were mostly ex-Ba’athists and regime defectors hailing from cities and towns that had served as hotbeds for early anti-regime protests. Riad Hijab is a former prime minister from Deir ez-Zor who chaired the HNC since its creation in 2015, while Riad Naasan Agha is a former culture minister and former parliamentarian, hailing from Idlib in the Syrian north-west.
Salem al-Muslet, a native of Qamishli in the Syrian north-east, is chief of the powerful Jabour tribe that bestrides Syria and Iraq. Abdulhakim Bashar is a medical doctor from Hasakah who serves on the political bureau of the Kurdish Democratic Party. Nawaf al-Fares of Abu Kamal hails from a powerful tribe; he was Syria’s ambassador to Iraq from 2008-2012. Previously he had been governor of Deir ez-Zor, Idlib and Quneitra and a ranking member of the Ba’ath Party.
Although the final communiqué of the Riyadh conference sounds tough, with full commitment to regime change, it includes a giant loophole, inserted carefully by Russia’s proxies in the Syrian opposition, through which Damascus, Moscow and Tehran can essentially drive a truck.