Syrian opposition unites to seek fresh talks

11 Dec 2015


An array of Syrian opposition groups agreed in Riyadh on Thursday to form a new and more inclusive body to guide the diverse and divided opponents of President Bashar al-Assad in a new round of planned talks aimed at ending the Syrian civil war.

The formation of such a body has been seen by the United States and the opposition's other international supporters as a prerequisite for new talks, and the new body appeared to fit the bill by pulling together political dissidents who have long distrusted one another as well as rebel groups fighting the Syrian Army.

''This is the widest participation for the opposition, inside and outside of Syria, and we have the participation of the armed groups,'' said Hadi al-Bahra, a member of the exiled Syrian National Coalition who attended the two-day conference that produced the new body.

The agreement in Riyadh, which US Secretary of State John Kerry called ''an important step forward'', followed a truce between rebels and government forces in part of the strategic city of Homs, which a senior United Nations official said could serve as a building block for a broader cease-fire agreement, so long as the government can hold up its end of the deal as proof that it ''cares about its people.''

The twin developments - the opposition conference in Saudi Arabia and the truce inside Syria - occurred as world leaders prepared to meet in New York in the coming days to discuss possible ways to end a civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people, created millions of refugees and empowered jihadist groups like the Islamic State.

Yet it remains unclear whether peace talks will even take place, much less succeed. Nearly five years of conflict in Syria have drawn in a range of regional and international powers, with the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others backing the opposition, while Russia and Iran have stood firmly behind Assad.

Taking advantage of the chaos, an affiliate of Al Qaeda has gained traction among the rebels while the extremists of the Islamic State have seized stretches of the country for a self-declared caliphate that extends into Iraq.

The rise of the Islamic State and the waves of Syrian refugees arriving in Europe have accelerated international efforts to end the war, and a new round of international peace talks were proposed at an international meeting last month in Vienna.

This week's opposition conference in Riyadh was part of the preparation for those talks.

In two days of meetings hosted by the Saudi government that ended Thursday, more than 100 opposition leaders created a new high commission to oversee negotiations with the government.

While previous efforts to unify the opposition failed or remained limited, the Riyadh meeting brought together many parties with differing agendas, some of whom regarded one another as enemies: exile politicians from the Syrian National Coalition; dissidents who have remained inside the country; and representatives from armed groups, including some hard-line Islamists.

All parties signed a final statement that called for maintaining the unity of Syria and building a civil, representative government that would take charge after a transitional period, at the start of which Assad and his associates would step down.

The high commission contains 33 members, about one-third representing armed factions. It will select a negotiating team of 15 people to face the Assad government at talks that could begin in January.

Divisive issues remain
Participants said issues that have long divided the opposition remained, with fighters dismissing politicians, exiles writing off domestic dissidents and Islamists and seculars not trusting each other's motives.

''There were many false accusations against us, but most of our people have been in prison,'' said Khalaf al-Dawood, a member of the National Coordination Body, an opposition group that has remained based in Syria.

He said the new body would counteract claims by Russia and Iran that the opposition was too scattered to uphold an agreement.

But divisions and obstacles remain.

Islamist delegates objected to using the word ''democracy'' in the final statement, so the term ''democratic mechanism'' was used instead, according to a member of one such group who attended the meeting.

And one powerful Islamist rebel brigade, Ahrar al-Sham, announced that it was withdrawing from the conference, accusing other delegates of being too close to the Syrian government and saying that conference failed to ''confirm the Muslim identity of our people.''

But Abdulaziz Sager, the Saudi academic who moderated the meetings, said afterward that the representative of the group had not known about the statement and had signed the final agreement anyway - suggesting a split between the group's political officials and its hard-line base.

The mere participation of armed factions marked a shift, since many have long shunned politics and refused to negotiate with the government.

Mohammed Baerakdar, a representative of the Islam Army, one of the armed brigades, said that foreign military support had not been enough to ensure victory so the group had to pursue a political solution.

''We did not take up arms to spill blood,'' he said. ''We took up arms to spare blood.''

Internationally-backed peace talks held in Geneva failed, and it remains unclear whether the dynamics of the war have shifted enough for the warring parties and their backers to be willing to make concessions.

Among those left out of the Riyadh meeting was Syria's predominant Kurdish party, whose armed wing has coordinated closely with the United States to fight the Islamic State. It held its own conference in territory it controls in northeastern Syria.

The cease-fire, in the Waer district of Homs, allowed more than 700 people to leave a rebel-held area that the government has surrounded, but also allowed many rebels to remain and keep their weapons until the government releases detainees, according to Yacoub El Hillo, the top United Nations humanitarian official in Syria.

''The real test for the government,'' Hillo said, is whether ''it will give civilians a peace dividend,'' meaning resuming services and allowing humanitarian access. Such promises have gone unfulfilled in previous cease-fires that failed, leaving behind destroyed ghost towns.

''This should be taken as an opportunity to show that the state cares about its people,'' Hillo added, ''and not repeat what we have seen.''

Still, the prospect of a peace deal rests on several parallel diplomatic tracks bearing fruit.

The talks are to come alongside a cease-fire that the United Nations hopes will cover much of the country, except territories controlled by terrorist groups.

Jordan is tasked with coming up with a list of groups that are to be designated as terrorists, itself a politically charged enterprise.

Many opposition groups are considered to be extremist in their ideology. ''It's a very fraught issue,'' one United Nations diplomat said.

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