Riyadh Conference: The Regime is Unlikely to Accept the Opposition’s Newly Unified Position

On December 10, Syrian opposition groups met in Saudi Arabia in their most serious attempt yet to present a united political front in negotiations to end the conflict in Syria. That the diverse array of opposition groups was able to agree on negotiation terms is an unprecedented sign of unity. However, the hardline group Ahrar al-Sham’s withdrawal is a major setback for the opposition and could have military implications in Syria. Overall, the results in Riyadh were positive for the opposition participants and their efforts at unity, but the details indicate opposition negotiating terms that the regime and its backers—and possibly one key rebel faction—are unlikely to accept.

Most of the major fighting groups, including nationalists and Islamist groups, were represented in some capacity at the talks. Also represented were the Western-backed political opposition-in-exile and several members of the National Coordination Body, a secular reformist group whom Russia has spent significant time courting. By the end of the talks, the representatives had agreed on a unified negotiating position vis-à-vis the Assad regime and its backers and committed to pluralism, Syria’s territorial integrity, and the continuity of its state institutions. They agreed to negotiate with the regime under the conditions that Assad and his inner circle leave power by six weeks into the talks, and that the regime lift sieges, stop bombing civilian areas, allow humanitarian aid to reach those in need, and permit refugees to return to Syria.

Since the conflict began in 2011, the opposition has made many attempts to develop political and military coherence. Until the achievements in Riyadh, it had made some progress on the latter but not the former. While the Riyadh meeting could not have been expected to resolve the inherent contradictions between the factions, including the military and political opposition, the fighting groups themselves, and their foreign sponsors, the progress made was significant.

The opposition’s problems of agency and unity of purpose have contributed to Assad’s survival. The consensus reached in Riyadh begins to address the (often fair) criticism of the Syrian opposition as disorganized and lacking direction. Western states have used this criticism to justify providing meager support for the rebellion, while the regime and its allies have used it to argue that there is essentially no opposition with whom to negotiate—only a disparate collection of gangsters and terrorists that must be defeated militarily. This complicated the opposition’s ability to engage with the regime’s base and reconcilable members who will not abandon Assad if there is no plausible alternative party to work with. Insofar as the ongoing Riyadh process addresses these weaknesses, it is a gain for the opposition.

However none of this means that a negotiated settlement to the Syrian conflict has become more likely. Most significantly, the hardline Salafi militant group Ahrar al-Sham, which attended the Riyadh talks, withdrew and rejected the outcome. Its motives for doing so were unclear. The group claimed it could not accept the participation of the National Coordination Body given its closeness to the regime—but it is hard to believe that Ahrar al-Sham was unaware ahead of time that the latter would be present in Riyadh. Most worryingly, Ahrar al-Sham cited the opposition agreement’s failure to affirm the Islamic identity of the country—something that other rebel groups cannot agree to without violating their own agendas, alienating foreign sponsors, and sabotaging attempts to reach out to Syria’s non-Muslim population. While the first objection is likely superficial, Ahrar al-Sham’s demand that the opposition affirm Syria’s Islamic identity as a prerequisite for negotiations could cause a rift between the Salafist group and the remaining opposition groups, alienating the former from the diplomatic process.

Ahrar al-Sham’s fundamental rejection of the political process and its sabotaging of opposition unification efforts would offer foreign powers and rebel groups much-needed clarity as to its goals and strategy, following months of debate (including in the United States) over whether to engage with the group and how ‘moderate’ it is. On the other hand, the armed group is likely the single most powerful rebel group in Syria. Its alienation would place both it and the powerful Al Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front, in opposition to both the insurgency and regime. The Nusra Front is already an irreconcilable enemy to all but a few rebel groups, although they occasionally coordinate tactically against the regime. Adding Ahrar al-Sham to the list of groups that cannot be worked with would make negotiating and implementing a peace deal far more difficult.

In addition to the Ahrar al-Sham challenge, the opposition’s newfound unity gives it more negotiating power but does not make the regime and its backers any more likely to compromise.  On the one hand, greater unity increases the opposition’s diplomatic relevance, which would seem to boost the chances of reaching a settlement. It also increases the opposition’s negotiating leverage and confidence and those of its foreign backers, encouraging it to demand Assad’s departure and an end to the regime’s use of sieges and barrel bombing. However, the regime will not abandon two of its most effective tactics if it perceives it still has a chance to win the war, or at least hold on to a portion of the country with support from Russia and Iran.

The military situation on the ground does not indicate that the Assad regime needs to compromise. Moreover, there is no indication that Iran is ready to accept Assad’s departure as a starting point for negotiations. The key for both Iran and Russia is retaining control over the transition process, which requires keeping Assad in place to minimize uncertainty and guarantee that whoever replaces him continues to serve their interests. To Iran and Russia, Assad’s departure can only be the end point of a gradual transition, if that. Indeed, according to their terms, he would still be allowed to run for re-election at the end of his presidential term.

In light of Ahrar al-Sham’s ambivalence (or outright hostility) to the negotiating process, and the lack of a compelling reason for the regime and its backers to agree to the opposition’s demands, it appears that while the Riyadh gathering was a boon for the opposition’s unity but not for the prospect of a peace deal. A negotiated settlement to the war in Syria will have to wait for military realities to catch up with diplomatic activity.

Faysal Itani is a Resident Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

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Image: (Photo: Reuters)