It’s conference time in the Syrian opposition. All of a sudden, three rival meetings have kicked off, all claiming to represent the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. One is being held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, while the other two take place inside Syria—the first in Rumeilan, a town in the Kurdish-controlled northeast, and the second in the Syrian capital of Damascus, under the watchful eyes of Assad’s security apparatus.
This rush of political meetings is a direct consequence of the agreement struck in Vienna on November 14, when a group of states calling themselves the International Syria Support Group issued a joint communiqué laying out their vision of how to resolve the conflict in Syria. The group included all the major players in Syria, such as the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. Their communiqué called for negotiations between Assad and the opposition as soon as possible, with a target date of January 1. This very early date was apparently backed by the United States and intended to gain momentum and add a sense of urgency to the process.
That may or may not have been a good idea, but the lack of time for preparations has added its own set of problems. The Assad government has a well-practiced negotiating apparatus. It has relied on more or less the same individuals in every negotiation, including a core group made up of Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad, the veteran diplomat Ahmed Arnous, and a few others. They operate under the direct oversight of Assad himself and while the government cannot be accused of flexibility or creative diplomacy, it enjoys the great diplomatic benefit of being disciplined and on-message.
The same cannot be said of the opposition, which is a mess of fractious factions. It has never managed to produce a team of negotiators that represent even a thin sliver of the insurgency on the ground. When the last round of negotiations was held in January and February 2014, the so-called Geneva II talks, the opposition delegation had extremely limited support from armed rebels on the ground and none of them were on the negotiating team. Whenever the opposition in exile meets, foreign diplomats can be seen stalking the hotel lobbies, desperately trying to shepherd all of their Syrian clients in the same direction.
That’s why the Saudi government, egged on by Americans and others, has called a major meeting of Syrian opposition factions. The Riyadh conference intends to hammer out a road map for negotiators and also, if possible, elect a diplomatic team that will represent all of the participating groups in the upcoming talks with the Assad government.
In other words, a great deal is at stake. The Americans are hurrying the process along, anxious not to waste this opportunity to get talks going. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has already expressed his wish to convene a follow-up meeting of governments involved in the Syrian war in New York by December 18, although he noted that they must first await the outcome of the Riyadh conference and “a few other issues.”
The Kremlin is less enamored with what is happening in Riyadh. The Russians have had a role in selecting the delegates in the Saudi conference, too, but they objected almost immediately to Kerry’s declaration. Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin told reporters on Wednesday that it would be premature to aim for a December 18 meeting in New York stating that, “In our opinion, if the meeting is held in the nearest future, it should take place in Vienna in order to continue this process and in a sense keep a distance from the hectic atmosphere of New York.”
As for Assad’s other major ally, Iran, it is even less happy about the Riyadh conference, saying that it runs counter to the spirit of Vienna. That objection is hard to take seriously as there is nothing in the Vienna statement that would prevent the opposition and its supporters from trying to produce a proper delegation before the talks. To the contrary, one could argue that it is a necessity if the talks are to succeed. But the Iranians are obviously unhappy with seeing their Saudi archrivals take center stage and more generally anxious to undermine the opposition. Making noise in the media is a cheap way of doing so.
The Riyadh Conference
Around 100 delegates have now assembled at the Hotel Intercontinental in Riyadh. This conference has been in the works for almost a year, but repeatedly postponed until the Vienna meetings suddenly breathed new life into the peace process. Months earlier, Russians, Western Europeans, Egyptians and others had all hosted their own pre-congresses, in order to launch their favorite opposition groups on the path to future peace talks. But this is the big thing. Exile dissident Khatib Badla calls it “the first broad and serious attempt to unify the Syrian opposition.”
If so, it’s about time. In an interview today with Syria in Crisis, Noah Bonsey, a Syria expert at the International Crisis Group said that “achieving a political resolution in Syria will require some sort of opposition coalition capable of negotiating credibly, implementing what it agrees to, and protecting that deal from likely jihadi spoilers.” He explained that, “the opposition currently lacks such a vehicle, in part because its existing political bodies do not reflect the weight of armed groups on the ground and have limited credibility with the rebel base. Ideally, the gathering in Riyadh will result in a significant step toward addressing this shortcoming.”
But the risk of failure also looms large over the conference. Many in the opposition sense that Western patience with the conflict is running out and the Vienna process might be their final chance to make a difference. As Adib Shishakli, one of the participants, put it to a Saudi newspaper: “The participants know that this conference will be decisive and that it might be the last conference of the opposition.”
The Guests of the Hotel Intercontinental
The groups gathered at the Hotel Intercontinental reflect the wishes of the organizers. While the meeting is organized by the Saudis, it is also supported by the rest of the Friends of Syria states, including the United States, Qatar, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, France, the United Kingdom, and surely others. Russia has also been allowed to suggest delegates to the conference, despite its close alliance with Bashar al-Assad—not because Moscow is viewed as an ally of the Syrian opposition, but to give the Russians a stake in the outcome of the Riyadh conference and make sure that they stay on board for the rest of the process.
Picking who could come has not been an easy thing. Reflecting Turkey’s influence, the main Kurdish group in Syria has been excluded (more on that below) but most of the Western, Gulf, and Turkish favorites are there, as well as a few Russian-backed dissidents (names of the delegates can be found at the end of this text).
The list of invitees began around 65 but it ended up above 100. It has been expanded step-by-step to appease factions threatening to boycott and states angry that their favorite client groups were too poorly represented. There was also the question of ensuring fair representation for Syria’s ethnic and religious minorities in an otherwise heavily Sunni Arab opposition. This seems to have succeeded more or less and now a fairly impressive number of Alawites, Christians, and Druze are present. Only one group of Syrians is underrepresented to a truly extreme degree: women. But, as it happens, that doesn’t seem to bother the opposition, the regime, or their foreign sponsors.
One of the main reasons for the swelling number of participants was an argument that erupted inside the National Coalition, an exile alliance supported by the Friends of Syria coalition of governments. In the run-up to the congress, rival factions began accusing each other of trying to stack the group’s delegation to Riyadh with their own supporters. To reduce tensions, balance out discrepancies, and prevent boycotts, the organizers found themselves forced to add more and more names. The number of National Coalition members had initially been set at 20 or 21, but it ended up around 40, although some were formally invited as “independents.”
That, in turn, necessitated the addition of more delegates from other opposition blocs, such as the National Coordination Body and the Building the Syrian State Movement, two small groups of secular reformists that are partly based inside Syria. They oppose armed struggle and many of their members look favorably on the Russian intervention. Other opposition members consequently view them as a tool of Assad’s government. Russia has spent much time courting the National Coordination Body and these dissidents were apparently invited to Riyadh partly on Moscow’s urging, although several Friends of Syria governments also want them present.
The Armed Groups: Few, but Important
By contrast, the most important opposition factions are very poorly represented. The National Coalition is made up of exiles while the National Coordination Body is too small to make a difference—and its leaders live under Assad’s thumb anyway. On the ground in Syria, the armed groups fighting Assad are the only ones that truly matter to the outcome of the conflict. In Riyadh, for the first time, some of the largest groups fighting in Syria are present. This is a major step forward from the days when virtually all armed groups rejected the idea of a UN-led peace process.
As recently as two years ago, in the lead-up to the 2014 Geneva talks, most of the leading rebel groups in Syria attacked the National Coalition and called negotiations a conspiracy against the revolution, saying they would impose sharia law by military means instead. Even after the Geneva talks began, they could not bring themselves to support them, although some toned-down their hostility. But much has happened since then and now these same groups have come to Riyadh to sit alongside the National Coalition and draw up a road map for negotiations with Assad. They include Qatari- and Turkish-funded Islamists like Ahrar al-Sham, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Sham Legion, and Saudi-linked Islamists like the Islam Army and the Asala wa-Tanmiya Front. There are also representatives of several Western-approved Free Syrian Army factions, including Turkey-based groups and members of a loose coalition known as the Southern Front, which operates out of Jordan.
For the Syrian opposition, having this level of rebel representation is a very significant step forward. If the rebels approve, a ceasefire deal agreed with Assad stands at least some chance of being implemented on the ground. If concluded against their will, it would be a dead letter.
However, only some 15 delegates are in Riyadh to represent the armed groups, although some National Coalition delegates are in fact also closely tied to armed factions (such as Heitham Rahmeh, who runs a Muslim Brotherhood-backed support structure for rebels). The proportion of armed groups was supposed to be much higher, closer to a fourth of delegates, but as more names were added to appease the squabbling exiles, the proportion of rebels sank to where it is now.
The ICG’s Noah Bonsey warns that the low percentage of armed rebels may end up being a problem. If they do not feel adequately represented, they will have a hard time selling any decisions made in Riyadh to their constituents in Syria, who are under contrary pressures from jihadi radicals. “The inclusion of leading armed factions that embrace political participation—including Ahrar al-Sham and the Islam Army—is a positive step,” Bonsey says. “But the fact that armed factions have received just 15 of more than 100 seats at the conference may lower incentives for them to invest their own credibility” in the outcome.
Indeed, the most hardline of the armed groups invited, Qatari-Turkish favorite Ahrar al-Sham, was immediately heard complaining about the underrepresentation of rebels. The Islamists seemed particularly put off by the fact that Russia-friendly dissidents had been invited, saying some were “closer to representing the regime than the people and the revolution.”
As so many of the groups in Riyadh are funded by foreign governments, preparatory work by the sponsoring states could perhaps have smoothed relations among rival factions. But it remains to be seen how much of that has been done. According to Bonsey, the Riyadh meeting “has been rushed in order to keep up with the timeline agreed at Vienna, and neither the opposition's state backers nor its main components have a clear vision on how to resolve the imbalances in the opposition's internal equation.”
The Rumeilan Congress
The second congress, organized in response to the one in Riyadh, is being held in Syrian Kurdistan. It has been set up by the dominant Kurdish group in that area, a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party best known as the PKK; although in Syria it hides behind a variety of other acronyms: PYD, YPG, YPJ, TEV-DEM, and so on.
The most recent addition to that long and growing list of letters is the SDF, which stands for the Syrian Democratic Forces. It is currently the Pentagon’s favored client in Syria, receiving American ammunition deliveries in order to attack the self-proclaimed Islamic State along a lengthy frontline in the northeast. But in political terms, the PKK—which forms the core of the SDF—is much closer to Moscow than it is to Washington. The Kurds are at war with most of the Arab mainstream opposition, as well as the hardline jihadists, all of whom view the PKK and its Syrian affiliates as an ally of Russia and Assad.
While the Americans thus far have significant differences with the Kurds, just as they do with Ahrar al-Sham and other Arab rebel factions, they recognize the importance of including the Kurds in any peace talks. But, the Turks do not. The Turkish government has been at war with the PKK since the late 1970s and it absolutely refuses to allow any political role for the group. By mobilizing their allies in the National Coalition, who said they would boycott if any PKK-affiliated faction was invited, the Turks were threatening to scuttle the whole Riyadh meeting. They had their way. Kurdish members of the National Coalition will be present, but the PKK-affiliated groups will not, even though they rule around two million people inside Syria—more than the National Coalition could dream of.
Angered at their exclusion and eager to remain in the headlines, the Kurds have set up their own conference in the city of Rumeilan, in northeast Syria. The invitees are a who’s who of local PKK allies and front groups, but there are also a number of Arab and Syriac delegates flown in from elsewhere, including a splinter faction from the National Coordination Body and other allies of the leftist exile dissident Heitham Mannaa. Mannaa, who defected from the National Coordination Body this spring, was invited to the Riyadh meeting but boycotted it, partly because of the exclusion of his Kurdish allies.
The purpose of the Rumeilan conference is to create a political wing for the SDF, called the Syrian Democratic Front (and thus also abbreviated SDF, which doesn’t help). It will promote a secular, feminist, and religiously inclusive political agenda, in tune with the PKK-backed autonomy project in Syria. It will also be flexible on all things except Kurdish autonomy, presenting itself as a moderate third force that could help bridge the gap between Assad and the Sunni Arab opposition. It’s a smart move and will be hard to handle for the Americans, who are already backing the Kurds against the Islamic State. How could they explain that they are sending arms to this group, but simultaneously have it excluded from the peace talks?
The Damascus Congress
The meeting in Damascus is the least important of the three conferences. It gathers a few self-described groups that weren’t invited elsewhere, mostly because they are seen as too close to the regime they claim to oppose. Examples include the Solidarity Party, the National Youth Party, the National Democratic Action Body, and others—fifteen or seventeen in total. They are all based in Syria. A few are formally illegal but generally tolerated by the security services, while others operate legally inside the Baath Party-controlled political framework. Some of the attendees at the Damascus conference are believed by the rest of the opposition, including many moderates in the National Coordination Body, to be regime proxies or informers. However, the assembly also includes some pre-2011 dissidents. They include the lawyer Mahmoud Merei, a longstanding Arab nationalist dissident and human rights activist who now heads the National Democratic Action Body and took part in the protests of 2011.
The groups assembled in Damascus may very well reflect the views of a significant number of Syrians who would like to see reforms but who, at the end of the day, prefer Assad over the rebels. But that doesn’t matter: they are still irrelevant to the outcome of the conflict. All of these groups are very small, lack independent leverage over either the government or the opposition, and cannot protect themselves against either side. If Assad wins, he will not let them have any influence, and if Assad loses, the rebels will not let them have any influence. And that’s the end of that.
The reason they are allowed to hold a congress in Damascus is because Assad is seeking to disrupt the Riyadh proceedings by pushing a rival "internal opposition" into the limelight. Mohammed Aboul-Qasem, head of the Solidarity Party—which was legalized in 2011 and is viewed with such favor by the government that it has just been licensed to issue a newspaper in Damascus—exemplified that strategy very well when he attacked the Riyadh meeting in comments to a pro-Assad newspaper, saying it didn’t represent the “opposition on the inside.”
The Baathists may also hope that the Damascus conference will help them foist a few of their own allies on the rest of the opposition, when the time comes for real negotiations. Slim chance, but no harm in trying.
Much Is at Stake in Riyadh
The only one of these conferences that truly matters is the one in Riyadh.
Whether or not its organizers accept it, the Damascus meeting is a mere plaything of the Assad regime. As for the PKK-linked Kurdish groups that are meeting in Rumeilan, they represent a powerful military force and they are increasingly well connected in both Russia and the United States. It will be impossible to exclude them from any serious peace process in Syria, no matter what the Turks say. But the Rumeilan conference is mostly political theatre, a reshuffling of cards that the Kurdish leaders were already playing. In the end, it will matter very little to the political game outside Syrian Kurdistan.
In Riyadh, however, much is at stake. If the conference fails, through high-profile defections or a failure to reach agreement, the opposition will have stumbled on the threshold of the new peace process. Assad, Iran, and Russia will be overjoyed and current trends in the West, where countries are fast losing the last of their faith in Syria’s opposition, will be reinforced. But if the conference succeeds in producing a joint platform and keeps all the major groups on board, particularly the armed ones, it will have been a step toward a real political process—a necessary step, but not in itself sufficient.
Many problems remain, including the difficulty of accommodating hardline Islamist demands in a process geared to produce a political compromise, while also not alienating the rebel fighters that need to be involved for the process to have any meaning. Ahrar al-Sham opened the talks demanding “the complete cleansing of the Russian-Iranian occupation of Syrian land, and the sectarian militias which support it,” also calling for the “overthrow of the Assad regime with all its pillars and symbols, and handing them over for fair trial.” The United States, for its part, is imploring the opposition to come up with "creative language" on the issue of whether Bashar al-Assad should stay or go, seeing a measure of intentional ambiguity as the only realistic way to move forward.
They have their work cut out for them in Riyadh.
List of Delegates in Riyadh
The following list of names is based on an Arabic-language article by Bahia Mardini in the Saudi online newspaper Elaph. Very similar lists have been published elsewhere. Please note that a number of the names on this list did not in fact show up in Riyadh despite being invited. The absentees include people who opted to boycott the proceedings for political reasons, or in favor of another conference, such as Heitham Mannaa, as well as those who were unable to attend for security reasons, which was the reason given by Zahran Alloush of the Islam Army. (The Islam Army is still represented by other leading members.)
Naser Mohammed al-Hariri
Ziyad Abu Hamdan
Brig. Gen. Awd Ahmed al-Ali
Ahmed Moadh al-Khatib
Bashir Ishaq Saadi
Riyad Naasan Agha
Abdo Abbas al-Najib
Representing armed factions:
Mohammed Iyad Shamsi
Hassan Ahmed Ibrahim
Major Mohammed Mansour
Hassan Hajj Ali
Mohammed Mustafa Alloush
Mohammed Zahran Alloush
Mohammed Abdelqader Mustafa