The chaotic nature of the Syrian civil war was illustrated by the presence of over a hundred representatives from opposition groups in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to lay the groundwork for peace talks with dictator Bashar Assad.
The effort may have come to nothing, because one of the more powerful Islamist factions walked out of the meeting, and the Syrian Kurds did not attend. Neither did al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front – one of the more appalling elements of the Syrian rebellion, but also one of the most effective battlefield forces.
Meanwhile, Assad declared himself unwilling to “negotiate with terrorists,” as he and his allies routinely describe most rebel groups. Another obstacle to moving forward was condemnation of the peace initiative from Iran, which has considerable influence in Syria, along with troops on the ground.
“After two-days of talks trying to form a unitied position to prospective early January negotiations with the Assad regime, the myriad stripes of the Syrian political opposition inside and outside the country, alongside various rebel factions, agreed to an inclusive and democratic Syria with no future for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime,” Deutsche Welle reports.
The group, which included both political opposition leaders and “rebel factions ranging from secular to Islamist,” was largely composed of factions with powerful outside backers, such as Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.
Their resolution insists that the Syrian government must move forward “without Bashar al-Assad or figures of his regime having a place in it or any future political arrangements.”
This is, of course, likely to be a non-starter with Assad, and his powerful backers in Russia and Iran. Deutsche Welle notes that as Russia has flexed its muscles in Syria, and the threat of the Islamic State has focused the attention of the international community, many of those who once insisted on Assad’s prompt departure, including the U.S., have moderated their demands, at least to the point of tolerating his presence in some sort of transitional government.
The Riyadh group also “called for the international community to compel Assad to implement confidence building measures, including a stop of executions, halt of regime sieges on towns to allow humanitarian aid to enter, and the release of political prisoners,” and also halt his forced displacement of Syrian populations, as well as his use of indiscriminate “barrel bomb” weapons against civilian areas.
The walkout from Riyadh was Ahrar al-Sham, a formidable Salafi Islamist militia with ties to al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front. It is a sign of how desperate the situation in Syria has become that U.S. officials are apparently willing to hold their noses and tolerate the presence of this group at peace negotiations.
It is not clear exactly what the walkout means, because Deutsche Welle notes a representative of Ahrar al-Sham did sign on to the statement issued by the Riyadh working group. Their complaint apparently had to do with the presence of a rival political organization at the meeting. They also said the Riyadh group included too many foreign influences and non-militant political actors, resulting in a statement that “did not affirm the identity of our Muslim people.”
Further complicating matters was the absence of the Kurds, who have been focused more on fighting ISIS than the Assad regime, which led some of the representatives in Riyadh to describe them as collaborators. The Kurds also have an uneasy relationship with Turkey, which is one reason they were not invited to the meeting.
The new Kurdish umbrella group, the Syrian Democratic Forces, held its own conference this week, calling for a “decentralized, democratic and pluralistic Syria that recognizes minority and women’s rights.” This statement was notably vague on the role of Assad in such a reformed Syria; it seemed he would at least be tolerated as part of a transitional government.
For his part, Assad does not seem willing to leave Damascus, either quickly or slowly. Reuters reports he gave an interview to Spanish media in which he seemed unwilling to join multi-party talks demanded by the international community for January.
“They want the Syrian government to negotiate with terrorists, something I don’t think anyone would accept in any country,” said Assad.
Referring to the groups that met in Riyadh, he added, “Whenever they want to change their approach, give up the armaments, we are ready, while to deal with them as a political entity, this is something we completely refuse.”
The dictator went on to blame foreign agencies for keeping the civil war going for so many years, suggesting that he could have defeated the rebels long ago without such outside interference. He expressed confidence that his military situation was improving, thanks to help from Russia and Iran, but said the price of his victories was “very high.”
Assad claimed he still had the support of most Syrians, and would not consider leaving office as long as that was the case.
“I never thought about leaving Syria under any circumstances, in any situation, something I never put in my mind,” he said.