The significance of the Riyadh talks on Syria

Sharif Nashashibi

Published: Updated:

That Saudi Arabia was able to gather such a large and diverse number of Syrian opposition groups and figures for talks in Riyadh last week was no small feat given the divisions among them. Even more impressive was the outcome: a common negotiating position and vision for post-war Syria, and agreement to form a secretariat to supervise peace talks and select a negotiating team.

A concluding statement called for democracy “through a pluralistic regime that represents all sectors of the Syrian people.” It would include women, and would not discriminate on religious, sectarian or ethic grounds.

While the statement expressed willingness to negotiate with the regime, it said President Bashar al-Assad would have to leave power upon the formation of a transitional government (opposition groups had previously said he would have to step down prior to negotiations).

Since Assad has dashed any hope for diplomacy, the greater opposition unity achieved in Riyadh may bear fruit on the battlefield rather than the negotiating table

Sharif Nashashibi

Delegates, probably mindful of the disastrous consequences of de-Baathification in neighbouring Iraq following the U.S. invasion, committed to preserving state institutions and restructuring the security forces.

The conference has been criticized despite these achievements, or because of them. This was to be expected given its size and diversity - one of the largest Syrian opposition gatherings since the conflict began, with more than 100 delegates. It included armed and political bodies, exiled and internal opposition, and Islamist and secular factions - in stark contrast to the recent Vienna conferences, which were notable for the complete absence of Syrians.


Much of the criticism revolves around the inclusion or exclusion of certain parties. However, the difficult balancing act of organizing such a conference meant it would be impossible to please everyone - any organizer would have faced the same problems.

It was a pity that the main Syrian Kurdish groups were not invited, not least because they control large parts of northern Syria, they are the largest ethnic minority in the country, and they are directly involved in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Their exclusion led some Arab delegates to stay away and hold a parallel conference in northeast Syria.

However, some participants in Riyadh made clear they would not attend if the Kurds were invited. The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), a key opposition group, said Kurdish factions were excluded because they only fight ISIS, not regime forces. This issue meant Riyadh would have lost the participation of certain delegates one way or the other.

Powerful rebel group Ahrar al-Sham withdrew from the conference, though reportedly still signed the final statement. The group said the mainly Damascus-based National Coordination Body for Democratic Change - which it accuses of being closer to the regime than to the opposition - was given undue prominence. Ahrar al-Sham also claimed rebel fighters were under-represented.

However, armed groups comprise the largest bloc - 11 representatives - in the planned 34-member secretariat, while Syria’s internal, mainly Damascus-based opposition will have six representatives. The exiled political opposition will have nine, and there will be eight independents.

Abu Mohamad al-Golani, head of al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing the Nusra Front, made accusations against the Riyadh conference that have no basis. His group was not invited (neither was ISIS), but he said it would not have attended anyway.

“Whoever went to the conference does not have the ability to implement things on the ground,” he said, describing the talks as a “conspiracy.” However, most of the main rebel factions sent delegates. The conference’s final statement belied Golani’s claim that it aims to keep Assad in power.

Some may have argued for inviting Nusra to the talks because it is one of the most effective forces against both Assad and ISIS. However, Golani’s claim that the conference “was not in the interests of the people of Syria, which is unacceptable,” means that even if it had attended, its participation would have been obstructionist.

Predictably, Assad’s key ally Russia - whose warplanes are bombing some of the groups represented at the conference - rejected it entirely, but has contradicted itself in the process. The Foreign Ministry criticized it for not representing all opposition groups - as if any conference would have been able to do so - and hence not having “the right to speak on behalf of the entire Syrian opposition.”

However, referring to attendance by certain armed groups, the ministry said: “Terrorists of all stripes should be excluded from the political process in Syria.” So Moscow faults the conference for being too inclusive, and not inclusive enough.

Futile diplomacy

The talks were intended to form a common position for negotiations with the regime that are scheduled for January, as agreed upon in Vienna. However, Assad has since reiterated that “we completely refuse” to negotiate with armed groups. Asked whether he would attend the upcoming talks, he replied: “They want the Syrian government to negotiate with terrorists, something I don’t think anyone would accept in any country.”

Even if the regime attends the talks they would end in failure, given remarks by Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad just days after the first Vienna conference: “We are not at all talking about what is called a transitional period. There is no alternative to the leadership of” Assad.

That does not mean the Riyadh conference was pointless - the basis of its importance has simply changed. Since Assad has dashed any hope for diplomacy, the greater opposition unity achieved in Riyadh may bear fruit on the battlefield rather than the negotiating table.

The need for greater cooperation, which produced a series of military successes earlier this year, is particularly necessary given Russia’s active participation in the conflict. The rebels would also receive a boost if talks on Yemen this week produce a breakthrough, allowing the Gulf states - particularly Saudi Arabia - to focus on further aiding the Syrian opposition. Assad’s intransigence is serving only to galvanize opposition resolve.

Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

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