Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The Riyadh II Conference

This week’s Riyadh II Conference on Syria aims to create a new framework for a solution to the crisis in the country, but it may simply help to rehabilitate the existing regime, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Al-Assad on Monday ahead of a summit between Russia, Turkey and Iran and a new round of Syria peace talks in Geneva. Al-Assad and Putin held bilateral talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi and Al-Assad also met with Russian military chiefs.  The meeting in Sochi came ahead of a summit scheduled on Wednesday in Russia between the presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey concerning the Syrian conflict. Al-Assad has only ventured outside his war-ravaged natio
Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Al-Assad on Monday ahead of a summit between Russia, Turkey and Iran and a new round of Syria peace talks in Geneva. Al-Assad and Putin held bilateral talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi and Al-Assad also met with Russian military chiefs. The meeting in Sochi came ahead of a summit scheduled on Wednesday in Russia between the presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey concerning the Syrian conflict. Al-Assad has only ventured outside his war-ravaged nation twice since the conflict began, both times to Russia. Putin, however, revealed that Russia was getting ready to scale down its operation in Syria. However, he did not say when.

اقرأ باللغة العربية


After numerous postponements, the Saudi-sponsored conference of the Syrian opposition, the so-called Riyadh II Conference, opened on 22 November in the Saudi capital. Closely followed by Russia, it aims to act as an alternative to the Higher Negotiations Committee (HNC) ahead of the UN-backed Syrian peace talks. In addition to representatives of the internationally recognised Syrian opposition groups, it is expected to include representatives of the Cairo Forum and the Moscow Forum, as well as a large number of independents.

Around 150 Syrian figures have been invited to attend the three-day conference. While some are well-known opposition members, most are more unfamiliar figures. More than a quarter of the invitees are women. The organisers also bypassed the Syrian opposition organisations in their preparations for the event, among them the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, internationally recognised as a representative of the opposition, and the Higher Negotiations Committee, internationally recognised as the negotiating delegation in the Geneva Conferences on Syria.

These groups were neither consulted nor given the conference agenda. They were also forced to accept the participation of the Moscow Forum, which Syrian opposition forces regard as close to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and a Russian puppet. They strongly oppose the forum’s acceptance of allowing Al-Assad to remain in power during the interim period and its insistence that he can only be removed through subsequent elections.

Two days before the opening of the conference, Syrian opposition leader Riad Hijab also resigned, saying in a statement that he was stepping down as head of the Higher Negotiations Committee after two years in the post and adding that he continued to support the principle of a unified Syria that had no place for Al-Assad or his regime.

According to the invitations, the purpose of the conference is to create a new representative framework for the Syrian opposition that would include new individuals, groups and outlooks and to formulate new principles for a political solution to the conflict in the country. These new principles will probably be different from those stated in the Geneva 2 Declaration, to which all Syrian opposition groups subscribe apart from the Moscow Forum.

Russia has welcomed the Riyadh II Conference, on the condition that it includes other individuals and groups along with the HNC to create a unified delegation of all the Syrian opposition factions that will participate in the eighth round of the Geneva talks to be held before the end of this month.

The Syrian opposition has been mild in its reaction and has said nothing to suggest that it will reject the arrangements made at the conference. The HNC has indicated that it favours the expansion and inclusion of the Cairo and Moscow forums, and it has made no mention of demands that Al-Assad step down and be excluded from participating in the interim phase even though these have been routinely reiterated in previous statements.

The Syrian opposition factions also do not object to the Cairo Forum, seeing it as similar in strategy to the HNC. The forum seeks radical political change in Syria on the basis of the first Geneva Declaration of 2012, which calls for the establishment of a transitional governing body exercising full executive powers and depriving Al-Assad and members of his regime of them.

However, though the declaration was signed by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and the European and Arab countries having a bearing on the Syrian question, none of its provisions have been implemented. The declaration is implicitly opposed by Russia, which realises that it would lead to the fall of the Syrian regime and the rise of a new government in Damascus that Moscow might not be able to control.

The inclusion of the Moscow Forum in the Riyadh II Conference is more of a problem, particularly as its members have only seven of the 150 seats, giving it seven per cent of the votes. Other opposition members could obstruct any resolution they feel is inconsistent with their outlooks. In addition, more than half the invitees to the Riyadh Conference are independents not bound by any form of consensus or coordination. Their views are unknown, and it seems likely that they will not be able to agree on a common position.

This will affect the proceedings of the conference and perhaps force the sponsors to push through resolutions that would otherwise not be able to garner support. The results of the conference are likely to disappoint those who remain committed to the goals of the Syrian Revolution and who believe in the need for comprehensive and radical political change.

The Riyadh II Conference not only comes ahead of the UN Geneva Conference but also ahead of the third Sochi Congress on Syria, a Russian-sponsored event that will bring together some 1,500 delegates from Syria of whom half are pro-regime and are drawn from all sectors of Syrian society, including the different religious, ethnic and tribal groupings, as well as various civil society and political activist groups.

Many Syrian opposition figures are now pinning high hopes on Saudi Arabia, which has offered considerable political, financial and military support to the Syrian opposition over the past seven years. They hope that the Saudi-led drive to clip Iran’s wings in the region will bear fruit and believe that Saudi Arabia will not alter its stance toward the Al-Assad regime and pressure the opposition factions assembled in Riyadh into compromises that could compel them to reconcile themselves with it and the Russians and Iranians. 

However, others predict the Saudis may not meet these expectations. Syrian opposition member Said Muqbil told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the Saudis might be generous with the Russians, not out of love for them or out of a desire to ally with them to offset their relationship with the US, but rather in order to halt Iranian expansion in Syria and the wider region. The Saudis hope to induce the Russians to reduce their backing for Iran, the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah, and the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation militias in Syria.”

 “But success here will depend on the Russians falling into line with this expectation, and it puts the Russians, and by extension the Iranians, in full control of the Syrian question, enabling them to turn the forthcoming Sochi Congress into an alternative to Geneva. Resolutions emerging from Sochi could put paid to Geneva Conference resolutions and related UN resolutions leading to the end of the Syrian Revolution and the rehabilitation of Al-Assad and his regime.”

Eqab Yehia of the Syrian National Coalition, who has been invited to the Riyadh II Conference, said that “there are rumours that the organisers will push to amend the rejection of any role for Al-Assad and the key members of his regime in the transitional period. The bottom line for the overwhelming majority of the participants is clear: they will not agree to eliminating a role for Al-Assad or the complete termination of his role with the beginning of the transitional phase.”

The Syrian opposition is now considerably weakened, having lost the battle on the ground to the Russians and Iranians. It must adopt a firm and united position, especially given the increased number of parties involved in the Syrian crisis, helping to tip the political balance in its favour. If it fails to do so and succumbs to further divisions, Russia will press ahead with its project to rehabilitate Al-Assad, and this could lead to a major war in the region that would change the existing balance.

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