Riyadh conference a milestone for Syrian opposition
The perennial question regarding Syria remains: Can the Assad regime remain in power? The answer, which has also remained the same since the start of the Syrian revolution more than four years, is: The regime that was established by Hafez Assad and taken over by his son Bashar is over. However, does this spell the end of Syria as we know it?
The Syrian people will be victorious over the regime — one way or the other — but could this spell the end of a unified Syria? This is the biggest challenge facing Syrian opposition leaders who met in Riyadh in mid-December. They must put forward a united political and military front that can be an acceptable alternative to the regime.
One of the most important developments that we have seen in Syria is the trouble the Assad regime is having replenishing its ranks. Military checkpoints have been set up in government-controlled territory in Damascus and elsewhere not to look for rebels but, rather, to seek young Syrian men who are absent from their military service. Those caught undergo a short training period — perhaps a week or two — before being sent to the front lines, where many are killed.
Even with bombings by Syria’s Russian ally, the Assad regime lacks the raw numbers to push back against the rebel groups and take advantage of its aerial superiority. Assad needs at least 80,000 recruits to bolster his army’s ranks and retake areas that have fallen out of government control but these new recruits are nowhere to be found. Russia’s latest efforts to bolster its Syrian ally will ultimately prove in vain.
Returning to the Riyadh meeting, we must first express thanks to the efforts being undertaken by Saudi Arabia to unify the Syrian opposition ranks. There is cautious optimism that these efforts will bear fruit, bearing in mind the state of fragmentation and division that has historically existed between the different rebel groups. One thing that these various groups can agree on is that Assad and the Islamic State (ISIS) are the enemy.
The Syrian opposition did well in the Riyadh meeting to reconfirm that Assad must leave power with the start of any transition period. They also agreed to form a joint negotiating delegation and put in place a path for a future independent, civil and pluralistic Syrian state.
In what represented the first meeting to bring together close to 100 different political and military opposition groups, the Syrian opposition managed to emerge with a realistic communiqué that put forward a comprehensive consensus vision between the Western-backed opposition, the Syrian domestic opposition and “moderate” armed groups fighting on the ground.
This confirmed that any negotiations with the Assad regime would be based on the Geneva I communiqué and related international resolutions and within a UN-backed schedule. This communiqué provides a way out of this crisis for all sides.
Will this be enough to resolve the Syrian crisis, particularly when we are faced with a US administration that has no Middle East strategy in general and no Syrian strategy in particular?
Does the Assad regime believe that it should leave today, rather than tomorrow, because its remaining in power would destroy what is left of Syria?
Have the Russians finally acknowledged that its defence of Assad is doomed to failure, especially if Moscow has ambitions to export Gulf gas to Europe via the Syrian coast?
Has Iran acknowledged that its objective to establish an Alawite statelet like the Hezbollah mini-state in Lebanon is an unachievable dream?
In any case, the greatest responsibility falls on the shoulders of Syrian opposition groups. They must meet the aspirations of the Syrian people while dealing with regional and international complications, particularly Russia and Iran.
Much will depend on the ability of the Syrian opposition to remain united after the Riyadh conference. The conference was a milestone in the history of the Syrian opposition, particularly its ability to emerge with concrete results. It is imperative that the Syrian opposition continue in this vein.