BEIRUT A Syrian opposition meeting due to start in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday marks the most critical work however to unify President Bashar al-Assad’s fragmented enemies, a step observed as essential to peace talks sought by world powers but which has riled Iran.
While the outlook for the political track lately launched in Vienna appears bleak – international divisions more than Assad persist and the war in Syria has escalated – the Riyadh meeting delivers the prospect of forging a a lot more united opposition far better in a position to negotiate with the government.
Assad’s opponents and the governments that back them see it as a lengthy-overdue step towards ending the disunity that has obstructed diplomacy: the Turkish-primarily based political opposition that led the last round of failed peace talks two years ago was widely criticised as out of touch with forces on the ground.
The Riyadh meeting is meant to bring rebels, or those who represent them, to the table when negotiations start.
However Iran, whose Shi’ite-led government is an arch rival of the Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia, has stated the meeting is aimed at harming the Vienna peace talks and would trigger their failure. The Vienna approach envisages formal talks amongst the Syrian government and the opposition by Jan. 1.
The participants invited to Riyadh consist of powerful Islamist factions Islam Army and Ahrar al-Sham – a group whose founders had links to al Qaeda. Ahrar al-Sham nevertheless fights alongside the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian wing, even though espousing a nationalist agenda.
Islam Army stated in a statement that its commander, Zahran Alloush, would not attend since the group had lost control of the road he had been organizing to use to exit the location in the Damascus suburbs where the group is primarily based. Members of Islam Army’s political workplace will attend as an alternative, it said.
A dozen Free of charge Syrian Army rebel groups will also attend, like groups vetted by the United States that have received foreign military help. They include recipients of U.S.-created anti-tank missiles supplied to rebels in bigger quantities considering that Russia intervened militarily on Assad’s side on Sept. 30.
“It is the initial time there is a meeting in Saudi – a meeting of soldiers and politicians – and it has a higher chance of achievement because Saudi is hosting it,” stated the head of 1 of the FSA groups.
“Saudi is a pivotal state in the area and for it to take this step – to host a conference of the Syrian opposition factions – definitely one thing genuine will outcome from it.”
He declined to be named due to the fact of political sensitivities surrounding the conference. Underlining the complexities, media access to the conference is anticipated to be very restricted.
An initial list of 65 invitees has grown to many much more than that, sources familiar with arrangements say.
KURDS NOT INVITED, SCOPE FOR FRICTION Observed
Even with backing from Saudi Arabia, the United States and others, analysts nonetheless see scope for friction in Riyadh, notably in between groups battling to unseat Assad and members of the Damascus-primarily based opposition who are expected to attend.
“Attempting to get these two poles to agree to the exact same platform and to negotiate as one particular unit is going to prove really challenging if not not possible, it’s not entirely clear to me whether it is even advisable,” mentioned Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.
A Syrian Kurdish group that has taken over wide areas of northern Syria and which has fought Islamic State with U.S. assist meanwhile says it has not been invited to the talks at all. One of the Kurdish-run enclaves in Syria declared the Saudi talks “doomed to fail” with no Kurdish involvement.
Diplomacy towards ending the almost 5-year conflict has accelerated considering that Russia deployed its air force to mount strikes in support of the Syrian army.
Iran has also intervened with more forces considering that then. Hundreds of its elite Revolutionary Guard Corps are fighting alongside the Syrian army in ground offensives getting waged with Russian air cover in several regions of western Syria.
Saudi Arabia has in turn boosted support to the rebels. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir mentioned on Nov. 26 that a military choice in Syria was nonetheless viable and help for the opposition fighting to topple Assad would continue.
Russia’s air campaign has mostly hit areas of western Syria that are critical to Assad’s survival and exactly where the Islamic State group – the stated target of the Russian intervention – has small or no presence.
All the rebels attending the meeting are enemies of Islamic State, which controls swathes of eastern Syria seized mainly from other insurgent groups. The Nusra Front, listed as a terrorist group by the United States, has also not been invited.
A diplomat who tracks Syria stated Russia would object to the participation of both Islam Army and Ahrar al-Sham due its hyperlinks to the Nusra Front and al Qaeda. “The Iranians really feel uncomfortable with the Saudis top,” the diplomat added.
“The aim of agreeing the parameters of negotiations with the regime is challenging to achieve.”
But the spokesman for a single of the FSA groups due to attend said Ahrar al-Sham have been portion of the Syrian folks.
“We did not take portion ahead of in conferences before, but we hope that this conference will be essential for the future of Syria and ending the war,” mentioned Abu Ghaith al-Shami of Alwiyat Seif al-Sham, which operates in southern Syria.
(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Sylvia Westall and John Davison in Beirut Writing by Tom Perry Editing by Giles Elgood and Jonathan Oatis)