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'Roadmap without Assad': Syrian opposition Riyadh meeting kicks off

Will Syrian opposition factions meeting in Riyadh today succeed in agreeing a common vision? [Getty]

Date of publication: 8 December, 2015

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Syria's splintered opposition gathers in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for a difficult bid to unify, ahead of potential peace talks with President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

A Syrian opposition conference in Riyadh, scheduled to begin on Tuesday, will seek to bring together disparate organisations whose divisions have been a serious barrier to finding a peaceful solution to the conflict in Syria.

The Saudi-organised talks mark the first time representatives of Syria's various political and armed opposition factions gather together since the outbreak of the country's conflict in mid-2011.

The goal is to form a unified bloc for talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that world powers hope can be held before 1 January.


Here are some of the factions and figures believed to have been invited:

Syrian National Coalition

The leading opposition grouping in exile, created in Doha in November 2012, will send 20 delegates to Riyadh.

It includes members from across the political and ethnic spectrum and represents some military forces, though it is often accused of being removed from the realities on the battlefield.

It has been recognised by 120 countries as the representative of the Syrian people and participated in two rounds of peace talks in Geneva with regime delegates in 2013 and 2014.

It is currently headed by Khaled Khoja, and is based in Turkey.

Cairo Conference

Formed in January 2015, the grouping brings together some 150 domestic and exiled opposition figures, including Kurds.

One of the group's co-founders is Haytham Manaa, a longtime dissident.

It will send around 20 delegates to the meeting.

National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change

The leading Syria-based opposition body, founded in 2011, includes leftist, nationalist and Kurdish parties as well as individual dissidents.

It has staunchly opposed foreign intervention in Syria and its continued existence inside the country has been tolerated by the regime, though its members have been harassed and arrested.

It participated in talks organised by Moscow on the conflict in 2014 and 2015.

Independent figures

A handful of independent dissidents, including activists and businessmen may also figure among the participants, though their names have not been made public so far.

Armed factions

Some 15 representatives from armed factions are expected to attend the conference, according to one source, but the details of which groups are being invited remain murky.

The only group to confirm it has been invited is Jaish al-Islam, a powerful movement mostly active around Damascus.

The Western-backed Southern Front coalition, which operates in southern Syria, is thought to be another invitee, but has not said so officially.

There have also been reports that Ahrar al-Sham, perhaps the most powerful non-extremist opposition force in the country, will be among the invitees.

But divisions have already emerged over the reported participation of some groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, allied with al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate the Nusra Front.

Armed groups described as "terrorist" organisations, such as the al-Nusra Front itself and the so-called Islamic State group (IS, formerly ISIS), were not invited.

The powerful Saudi-backed Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) rebel force, which includes hardline Islamists, announced late Monday it would be sending two delegates to take part.

Saudi Arabia insists invitations were extended to "all factions of the moderate Syrian opposition" including from all parties, sects and ethnic groups.

But Kurdish groups, including the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces - a recently formed coalition of Kurdish, Arab Sunni Muslim, and Christian forces fighting IS - were not invited.

Kurdish groups including the leading Democratic Union Party (PYD) have organised their own two-day conference starting Tuesday.

Previous attempts by international and regional powers have failed to unite the diverse Syrian opposition groups, whose differences have for years reflected the struggle for influence among the countries supporting them.

But there has been a growing diplomatic push for a resolution to Syria's devastating conflict, which has seen more than 250,000 people killed and millions forced from their homes.

Last month, top diplomats from 17 countries - including key international backers and opponents of Assad - agreed in Vienna on a fixed calendar for Syria that would see a transition government set up in six months and elections within 18 months.

Read more: Syrian opposition experts launch 'post-Assad roadmap' ahead of conference

'Difficult and risky'

Some 100 delegates are expected in Riyadh for this week's talks on forming an opposition bloc to negotiate with Assad on the transition.

About 20 members of the Istanbul-based National Coalition, the main Syrian opposition grouping, are taking part in the meetings, which take place as leaders of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council converge on Riyadh for their annual summit on Wednesday.

Hisham Marwa, the deputy head of the National Coalition, which is recognised by much of the international community, told AFP that unofficial preliminary talks would be held later Tuesday.

National Coalition member, Khatib Badla, spoke to al-Araby al-Jadeed's Arabic service regarding what should be expected from the conference.

"This will be the first serious attempt to unify the Syrian opposition. There are good odds for the conference to succeed, given that the official sponsor is Saudi Arabia," Badla said.

However, Samir Aita, an opposition figure who was not invited to Riyadh, disagrees, and believes there is a little chance for the participants to reach a common vision for negotiations with the regime.

"The odds for success are linked to an agreement among the countries backing the Syrian opposition groups, namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt, over a unified vision," he said.

Charles Lister, visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, told AFP that the talks aim "to go some way towards establishing an opposition negotiating team."

The Riyadh meeting is also "an attempt to establish a unified political structure between the recognised political opposition coalition and the armed opposition as a whole," the analyst said.

Syria's political opposition, including the exiled National Coalition, has long been accused of being out of touch with forces on the ground.

National Coalition member Samir Nashar said the talks would be "difficult and risky" as they could leave the opposition more divided than ever.

He said the aim was to "agree on a common and clear position concerning the future of Syria, the transition and the stance on (the fate of) Bashar al-Assad."

Speaking of "core differences" over Assad's fate, Nashar said he feared that "some groups close to states supporting the regime could demand that Assad stays during the transition period".

"This risks causing the failure of the meeting," he said.

Groups supported by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are demanding Assad's rapid departure, a condition that Iran and Russia oppose.

The Syria-based opposition tolerated by the regime argues that Assad's fate should be decided by the Syrian people.

Despite the sidelining of many rebel groups, Marwa said there was some hope of moving forward at the talks.

"I am optimistic about the presence of military and political figures. This is the real opposition...Those absent are a small number who will not affect the equation," he said.

Saudi Arabia's regional rival Iran will meanwhile be watching the talks, after warning that the Saudi meeting would breach declarations made by both sides in Vienna seeking a list of mutually approved opposition groups.

[Click to enlarge]

AFP contributed to this report.

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