Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1272, (26 November - 2 December 2015)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1272, (26 November - 2 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Saudi conference on Syria

Saudi Arabia has announced that it will be holding a conference on Syria in December in what may be a promising development for the embattled country, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 14 November, Vienna hosted a third conference on the crisis in Syria, this one designed to help the Syrian opposition form a unified delegation for talks with the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad that may take place by 1 January 2016.

This has turned out to be a thorny issue, since for the past four and a half years the Syrian opposition has done everything but unite. And as the international community presses for peace talks in the country, members of opposition groups have not finished squabbling.

According to leaks from Vienna, three lists were proposed for a possible opposition delegation. The Russians, Americans and Arabs all came up with competing lists, but none cheered the opposition.

The Russian list was said to be too friendly to the regime, the American was too dominated by liberals, and the Arab favoured former regime officials, including dissident vice-president Farouk al-Sharaa, it was said.

No one is sure what criteria were used in making the selections, making it unclear who would emerge to decide the country’s future.

In order to allow the opposition time to organise, Saudi Arabia has announced that it will host a conference on the country in Riyadh on 15 December, with all members of the opposition taking part.

The Saudis intend to invite all the country’s opposition groups, both political and military, to the conference, in addition to civil society representatives, officials from humanitarian relief organisations and independent figures. About 30 opposition armed groups are expected to attend.

The invitation has been favourably received by most opposition members, and UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura has offered his blessings to the Saudi move, saying it offers the opposition a real chance to develop a unified strategy.

In all, 300 opposition members are expected to go to Riyadh. Of these, a delegation of about 30 will be selected to negotiate with the regime. The negotiations are expected to remain within the framework set by the criteria spelled out during the Geneva and Vienna Conferences.

On the face of it, the new initiative may look like any of the failed attempts of the past few years to find a solution to the Syrian crisis – an act born out of wishful thinking and destined to crumble at the first row at the negotiating table.

But this may not be the case. For the first time in years, every major power involved in Syria is now truly interested in a solution. Russia, fully involved in the crisis, does not want to get bogged down in the country, and Europe, shocked by recent horrors, also wants to see a deal.

Having recently made a deal with Iran, the US is now willing to give Syria the attention it deserves.

Moreover, the Saudis seem more determined than ever to achieve a deal. In recent talks, they stood up to Russia, making it clear that the Syrian opposition, not the regime, must take the lead in deciding the country’s future.

Syrian opposition figure Mohamed Shouk is optimistic about the prospects of the Saudi conference. “If Saudi Arabia is hosting the conference, it will not allow it to fail,” he said.

“Saudi Arabia is in touch with everyone. It is coordinating with its allies, and its king recently conferred with the US, Turkish and Russian presidents. Such a long-awaited conference, so crucial to local, regional and international groups, cannot be allowed to fail.”

Opposition figure Walid Al-Binni advises the opposition to send two delegations to the talks: a military delegation to discuss ceasefire arrangements and a political delegation to discuss the shape of the future political system.

According to Al-Binni, only the military groups can make a ceasefire hold. The political delegation must focus on elections and a new constitution, he said.

“Any party participating in the ceasefire negotiations must have the ability to make it stick. Therefore, the discussions must be conducted by the regime and its supporters on the one hand and the armed opposition and its supporters on the other,” Al-Binni said.

“The political opposition should focus on the new constitution, the elections and the shape of the future state.”

Meanwhile, bickering within the opposition continues unabated. The key group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), wants to take the lead in the talks, but other groups have contested its credentials.

Among the armed groups, the situation is hardly more reassuring. Many of the fighting groups have allied themselves with diverse backers and by now have developed conflicting agendas.

This bickering among the opposition groups has cost the country dearly and has lost the opposition the trust of the public and the respect of foreign backers. Imposters and opportunists have joined its ranks. Gold-diggers and slogan-peddlers have jumped on the bandwagon, and fortune-seekers have edged sincere figures off the scene.

With the Saudis now at the helm, the opposition should shed its petty differences. If it is able to do so, the country may be one step closer to ending its ordeal.

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