Riyadh talks unify Syrian opposition, peace talks in January
LONDON - More than 100 members of the Syrian opposition, completing intense marathon talks in Riyadh, agreed to negotiate with the Damascus government towards a political solution to the Syrian civil war with the precondition the Syrian President Bashar Assad plays no part in a transitional period.
The aim of the three-day Riyadh meeting, which ended December 11th, was to unify the fragmented Syrian opposition before potential talks with the Assad regime. In November, foreign ministers from 17 countries agreed that a transitional government be set up within six months with elections carried out within 18 months.
Monzer Akbik, a member of the National Coalition opposition group, was quoted by Reuters as saying the Riyadh conference agreed to set up a leadership group that would include six coalition members, six representatives from rebel factions, five from a Damascus-based group and eight independent figures.
“These are representatives of all the opposition factions, political and military and they are going to be the decision makers in terms of the political settlement,” Akbik said. A separate negotiating team of 15 members would also be appointed, he said.
The talks were not short on drama. Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist insurgent group, withdrew from the talks, only to return and sign the final statement, according to sources and Reuters, which obtained a copy of the final declaration.
Erratic behaviour was expected of Ahrar al-Sham, which before the talks accused other members of the opposition of being friendly with the Assad regime. The group also pledged not to accept any outcome of the talks if it did not satisfy certain criteria, one of which was “maintaining the Islamic identity of our people and giving our religion the complete freedom in deciding Syria’s future according to its identity and history”.
Another issue was the complaint from a number of opposition groups of not being invited. Conspicuous by their absence were the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, the US-backed military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which were excluded at the insistence of Ankara.
In reaction to the snub, a number of Kurdish groups established their own two-day conference but with very little participation.
With regards to Kurdish participation at the Riyadh talks, Abdul Basit Sieda, the Kurdish former head of the Syrian National Council and head of the Kurdish National Council, told The Arab Weekly that all segments that make up the opposition, including political, ethnical and military aspects, were present in Riyadh.
Syrian opposition activist Marah Bukai said the conference was timely and would be instrumental in bringing together the entire spectrum of moderate opposition, from both the political and military sides. She said that would help develop “a vision to resolve this crisis, without compromising the core of our revolution in freedom, dignity and fairness to all Syrians”.
“The Riyadh conference is our last chance before heading towards total chaos that will not only affect the security and stability of the region but the entire world,” she added.
The demand that Assad and his circle play no part in a political transition is a tougher stance than that of several Western countries that back Assad’s opponents. The United States, France and Britain all called for Assad to step down after protests broke out against his rule in March 2011.
The reaction from the pro-Assad camp has been predictably hostile. A statement the Russian Foreign Ministry said that because the Riyadh meeting excluded groups such as the Syrian Kurds, they should not form the basis for peace talks.
In an interview with the Spanish news agency EFE, Assad stated he would not negotiate with armed groups, accusing Washington and Saudi Arabia of wanting “terrorist groups” to join the talks.
“There’s no point in meeting in New York or anywhere else without defining terrorist groups,” he said. “For us, in Syria, everyone who holds a machine gun is a terrorist.”
Al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, al- Nusra Front, accused rebels who attended the Riyadh conference of “treason” and betrayal.
“It is a plot, not a conference. Such… gatherings must be foiled,” al-Nusra Front chief Abu Muhammad al-Jolani said in an interview with Orient News, a Dubai-based Syrian opposition television channel.
Regarding the next step, Abdulaziz al-Sager, head of the Gulf Research Centre and leader of the Riyadh talks, said the opposition would meet government officials in the first ten days of January.
A statement at the end of the two-day conference said Assad should leave power at the start of a transitional period and called for an all-inclusive, democratic civic state. It also committed to preserving state institutions.