Syrian opposition seeks to close ranks as army gains on ground

RIYADH Syria’s fragmented opposition and rebel groups sought common ground on Wednesday ahead of planned negotiations to finish a conflict which has devastated the country and drawn forces from Cold War and Middle East rivals into ever deeper combat operations.

The talks in Saudi Arabia mark the most ambitious attempt but to unify President Bashar al-Assad’s enemies around a joint political platform – seen as a essential very first step to locating a peaceful finish to four years of war and battling Islamic State.

The powerful Kurdish YPG is among numerous groups excluded from the talks and those there are deeply divided more than central concerns like how to handle a transition from Assad and the function Islam must play in Syria.

But two delegates identified solace in what they described as a lack of any main rupture so far amongst those present.

“It went properly. Very good. We discussed many things. Tomorrow we will go over a document of basic principles,” said one particular opposition member. The groups hoped to total the talks on Thursday, but they may continue into Friday, he said.

A member of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition said there had been broad agreement: “We discussed the main problems relating to the dialogue, the transition and all modalities related to the political method. Most of them agreed.”

Much more than 100 delegates have been invited to the Riyadh meeting, such as from the Islamist insurgent group Ahrar al-Sham, founded by militants with al Qaeda hyperlinks, as well as opposition figures who have been primarily based in government-controlled Damascus.

Whilst most agree on a call for Assad to go, despite signs that some Western backers have softened their demands right after recognizing that military force has failed to topple the president, rifts in opposition ranks are still clear.

Prior to the talks opened on Wednesday, Ahrar al-Sham complained that some delegates have been “closer to … the regime” than the opposition. 1 activist in exile declined to attend alongside these who “assistance an Islamic emirate” in Syria.

International efforts to resolve the conflict which has killed 250,000 folks and displaced 12 million have been lent added urgency by a wave of deadly attacks across the planet claimed by the Iraq- and Syria-primarily based Islamic State and by an escalating refugee flow which has caused a crisis in Europe.

Main powers agreed in Vienna last month to revive diplomatic efforts to end the war, calling for peace talks to begin by January 1.

That prompted Saudi Arabia, which projects itself as a leader of the Middle East’s Sunni Muslims, to summon the mainly Sunni opposition and rebel groups. The move angered rival Shi’ite Iran which stated the initiative threatened to harm the Vienna process.

The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, whose country is also a key supporter of the Syrian rebels, mentioned the Riyadh meeting represented a “golden opportunity (for the Syrian opposition) to unify their ranks and coordinate their steps beyond setting up a negotiating group”.

ARMY ADVANCES

Intensified diplomacy has been accompanied by higher military intervention by foreign powers.

Russia has carried out 10 weeks of air strikes, halting rebel gains, and Iran has also offered Assad military support and said ousting Assad would be a “red line” for Tehran.

Western powers have stepped up attacks on Islamic State although Saudi Arabia, which backs the rebels, says an expanded military selection remains open.

Last month NATO member Turkey shot down a Russian plane it said flew into its air space, highlighting the danger that Syria’s multi-faceted war could spark yet wider conflict.

Russia’s air campaign has helped the Syrian army, backed by Hezbollah fighters and the Iranian military, to halt a rebel advance more than the summer which had threatened Assad’s manage more than the main population centers in western Syria.

Russian air strikes, even though containing rebel advances, have not decisively tipped the war in Assad’s favor.

On Wednesday, scores of people left the final region held by insurgents in the city of Homs, a center of the uprising against Assad which broke out in March 2011. About 750 men and women are anticipated to leave the Waer district below a regional truce among the government and rebels.

Further north, Syrian government troops backed by Iranian forces have edged closer to a significant rebel-controlled highway near Aleppo. They appeared to be attempting to cut the principal Aleppo-Damascus highway that fighters use to transport supplies from rebel-held Idlib province to the north.

For Saudi Arabia, which has been fighting considering that March in neighboring Yemen, Syria has been a secondary battlefield in its regional struggle for influence with Iran. But the kingdom nonetheless views the Syrian civil war as central to that rivalry.

Ahrar al-Sham mentioned the Riyadh meeting, which opened at a luxury hotel amid high safety, must stand by demands like “the complete cleansing of the Russian-Iranian occupation of Syrian land, and the sectarian militias which support it”.

“OVERTHROW OF ASSAD”

It known as for the “overthrow of the Assad regime with all its pillars and symbols” and placing its members on trial.

Syrian security and military institutions should also be dissolved it stated, putting it at odds with globe powers which agreed in Vienna final month that state institutions be kept intact in any transition of power.

Other rebel factions at the Saudi talks contain the strong Islamist force Islam Army, and a dozen groups which describe themselves as elements of the Cost-free Syrian Army (FSA).

The head of one particular FSA armed group mentioned the 1st day of talks was focused on discussing opposition demands and drafting a concluding statement. 

“The principles are the unity of Syrian land, the civilian nature of the state, and the unity of the Syrian people,” he said. Ahrar al-Sham stated Syria’s “Islamic identity” must be maintained.

Hadi al-Bahra, a senior member of the opposition National Coalition, mentioned there was a optimistic atmosphere and “no differences amongst the delegates” so far. “Everyone senses the value and sensitivity of this stage”, he tweeted.

Despite the fact that scores of men and women have been asked to attend, the Kurdish administration that runs swathes of north Syria was not invited.

Rebels in western Syria do not trust the principal Kurdish militia, the YPG, due to the fact they say it cooperates with Damascus rather than fighting it.

Delegates stated there was some Kurdish representation, but a Western diplomat who follows Syria stated this week the meeting had not brought together as several Syrian factions as hoped.

“It is not all-encompassing. It is not the consolidated, general opposition platform,” the diplomat stated.

(Further reporting by Tom Perry and Sylvia Westall in Beirut Writing by Dominic Evans, editing by Sami Aboudi, Peter Millership and Philippa Fletcher)

Agen Sabung Ayam