The Riyadh conference and an ambiguous Kerry

The Syrian opposition conference held in Riyadh was a success, and confirmed a complete Saudi-Syrian partnership for a free, civil and pluralistic Syria that is worth fighting for, whether through peaceful or forcible means.

It was agreed that the Supreme Commission for Negotiations, which will lead opposition diplomacy in New York next month, will be based in Riyadh. If diplomacy does not resolve the conflict, the alternative is the continuation of the Saudi-backed revolution and armed action, according to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.

The conference was successful because it brought together Syrians who have a vision and a wish for their country regardless of their affiliations: Islamists, nationalists, Kurds, Christians and others.

They know these wishes will not be fulfilled under the oppressive, sectarian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, or in a chaotic or divided Syria, or under the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). So they focused on getting rid of Assad, unifying Syria and establishing a civil state. Then they discussed the transitional phase, and whether Assad would be part of it.

Saudi support

However, not all world leaders are ready to provide the kind of support that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef delivered to the representatives of armed factions whom he met before the conference opening ceremony. “We will remain at your side until the aspirations of the heroic Syrian people are achieved, whatever it costs us,” he said. He reaffirmed that Riyadh rejected any role for Assad in a temporary or permanent formula leading to a solution.

Russia and Iran will most probably disrupt negotiations over a transitional government that, despite Kerry’s ambiguous statement, only means the beginning of the end for Assad’s regime

Jamal Khashoggi

Presumed allies such as the United States are becoming more convinced that Assad is the lesser evil compared to ISIS. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said: “It is not clear yet whether... Assad must first leave to ensure the presence of a collaboration between the armed opposition and the Syrian army to fight ISIS.”

Interpreting and restructuring the above constitutes a challenge that Riyadh and the Syrians will face in January’s negotiations, which are supposed to address the transitional phase. It is easier said than done.

Saudi Arabia wants to deplete the possibility of a peaceful solution as it is fully aware that Russian interference has changed the rules of the game, and that ISIS has changed the West’s priorities after the Paris attacks. Unifying opposition forces with the regime army, which is steeped in sectarianism and the blood of the Syrian people, is impossible, and will be rejected by the armed factions that attended the Riyadh conference.

Ahrar al-Sham - an organization that does not hide its salafist and jihadi tendencies, or its aspirations for Syria to become an Islamic state - resumed its demands: liberate the country from the “Russian-Iranian occupation and sectarian militias,” overthrow the regime and subject its members to a fair trial, dismantle its security bodies, reject sectarian and political quotas, preserve the Islamic identity of the people, and give them the right of self-determination in view of this identity. Most Syrians will favor such demands.

Ahrar al-Sham and the Army of Islam constitute the mainstay of the Syrian revolution, so the world should listen to these two factions, especially after the momentum they acquired at the conference. Classifying them as terrorist groups is absurd.


Russia and Iran will most probably disrupt negotiations over a transitional government that, despite Kerry’s ambiguous statement, only means the beginning of the end for Assad’s regime. They know that once the regime delegate signs an agreement that it must give up its monopoly on power and engage the revolutionaries in a transitional administration that would end in free elections under international supervision, the regime’s collapse will begin. Then, only the Iranians and Russians will remain to fight in the name of the Syrian Arab Republic.

So why organize this conference and these negotiations? The good news is that the Syrian people are resisting. This encourages the Saudi people to resist too, and to support them no matter what the cost.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Dec. 12, 2015.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels. Twitter: @JKhashoggi

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:47 - GMT 06:47
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