RIYADH Saudi Arabia’s effort to unite Syrian rebels in Riyadh next week will be a massive test of its regional ambitions soon after years of bickering amongst opposition groups and severe misgivings about the initiative amongst major powers with a stake in the war.
Since King Salman took energy in January, Riyadh has attempted to position itself as leader of the Middle East’s Sunni Muslims, most of whom want to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad toppled and the influence of his Shi’ite ally, Iran, curbed.
Riyadh now sees an opportunity to shape the war in Syria right after the Russian intervention, the European refugee crisis and the Paris attacks reawakened international engagement with the conflict and the threat posed by Islamic State.
“This conference is meant to change the predicament on the ground,” mentioned a senior Western diplomat in the Gulf, pointing to the want to strengthen what he referred to as the “moderate opposition” in Syria, which opposes both Assad and Islamic State.
Subsequent week’s gathering will be attended by around 65 members of the political and armed opposition, which includes about 15 representatives from armed groups. Of the two most strong armed groups, Islamic State has not been invited and the al Qaeda offshoot Nusra Front is also not expected.
Even so, with Iran decrying the meeting as dangerous to peace prospects, Turkey alarmed by the likely presence of Kurds, and Western nations concerned by the function that Islamists will play, Saudi Arabia might struggle to obtain that.
For Saudi Arabia, Syria has been secondary to Yemen this year as the major cockpit in an overarching struggle for regional influence with Iran, but the ruling Al Saud continue to regard the Syrian civil war as the rivalry’s pivotal battlefield.
The war pits the Syrian army and allied militias including Lebanese Hezbollah fighters backed by Iran and Russia, against an array of competing rebel and jihadi fighters, who incorporate Arabs and Kurds.
The rebel splits on the ground have been exacerbated by rival agendas of their supporters in the Gulf states, Turkey and Western nations. Syria’s political opposition in exile also has tiny influence inside the country, further complicating efforts to type a united front against Assad.
While the rebels’ external backers are united in describing Islamic State as a bitter enemy, Western countries see it as the largest and most urgent threat, even though Turkey and the Gulf states continue to regard Assad as the underlying dilemma.
Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia final year helped bring with each other a group of Arab nations to assistance U.S.-led air strikes against Islamic State, its military role in the coalition was mainly symbolic.
While it has continued flying some missions against the group this year, say diplomats, its part has been significantly decreased as a outcome each of unease with the coalition’s method and Riyadh’s overwhelming military concentrate on the war in Yemen.
The most current Saudi air strikes in Syria that the diplomat and a Saudi insider could don’t forget came more than a month ago, they stated. A second senior Western diplomat in the Gulf stated Saudi Arabia was nonetheless flying some missions.
Now Riyadh wants to concentrate on forging from the Syrian opposition a coherent physique that can function as a significant interlocutor, and dismiss the argument made by Assad, Iran and Russia that it is dominated by militants.
Gaining some kind of agreement at the meeting in between a wide selection of opposition groups will not be the only dilemma, nonetheless. A bigger task may possibly be persuading Riyadh’s allies to accept any outcome from the talks.
“Just to be organizing this is a large deal. There has been a lot of hedging over who to invite. It really is an evolving discussion between the Saudis, the U.S., the Turks and other individuals. There are lots of concerns with numerous groups,” mentioned the second senior Western diplomat.
Turkey has clear factors for concern. Ankara faces not only the threat from Islamic State, but also the prospect of Assad, shielded by Russia and Iran, holding on to power, while Kurdish rebels backed by the United States make territorial gains.
It has warned each the United States and Russia that it will not tolerate any such gains by the Washington-backed Kurdish YPG militia close to its frontiers in north-western Syria and privately deprecates Saudi efforts to contain the group.
Western nations fret about potent Islamist groups like Ahrar al-Sham, which are ideologically similar to al Qaeda but which Turkey and Gulf states view as moderate since they voice no ambitions to wage a wider regional jihad.
Renewed tensions in between Turkey and Russia after the shooting down of a Russian jet present another obstacle to reaching a broader agreement on Syria, but Riyadh nonetheless regards engagement with Moscow as important.
Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has visited Russia twice this year, and according to both Western diplomats and Gulf diplomats, still thinks there is a possibility that Moscow will at some point drop its assistance for Assad.
According to Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security professional with close ties to Riyadh’s Interior Ministry, it was simply because of Russia that Riyadh agreed to host the meeting, functioning to deliver a group that can negotiate opposite Assad.
“They understand the complexity of their job. How tough it will be to come up with some thing tangible,” he stated. “So they will not aim to create a centralized leadership that reflects who controls the ground due to the fact this will be impossible. They will aim to create a centralized leadership that has reasonable, rational thinking and can sit at the table.”
(Further reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Dubai and John Irish in Paris Editing by Giles Elgood)
Agen Sabung Ayam