The coming days and weeks could prove to be decisive for the fate of the Syria’s opposition forces. Wednesday (November 22) marks the start of a much-anticipated conference in Riyadh aimed at reinvigorating the anti-regime camp. A fresh round of UN-mandated talks in Geneva is set for November 28. And then, four days later, 1,400 Syrians will assemble at the Red Sea resort of Sochi for a “national dialogue conference” that will be held under the auspices of the Kremlin.
The Riyadh conference comes at a time when policy-makers are closely watching Mohammad Bin Salman, the powerful Saudi crown prince who staged a soft coup within the country’s royal family earlier this month, arresting tycoon princes who were either critical of his rule or potential threats to his political future. At Riyadh, the young emir plans to present Syrian opposition figures with an ultimatum: “You are either with us or with Qatar!”
Since his country’s standoff with Qatar started in June, many in the region have tried to stand at arm’s length from the crisis, treating both Gulf states as equals. That is no longer acceptable, they will be told in Riyadh: those who do not give allegiance will be squeezed out of the political process completely. The crown prince also hopes to eliminate hardliners affiliated either to the Muslim Brotherhood, to ISIS, or to the al-Qaeda affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a coalition of Islamic groups dominated by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra). What’s clear from his domestic performance is that MBS, as he has come to be known, is not one to be messed with, or fooled.
A total of 140 delegates will attend Riyadh, with exactly half of those as independents. The Riyadh-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC) – previously held up by the Saudis as the Syrian opposition’s sole legitimate faction – will take 21 seats. Rumor has it that the HNC’s chairman, Riad Hijab, will step down and be replaced by Ahmad al-Jarba, who hails from a powerful tribe that bestrides Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. The so-called Cairo and Moscow platforms will take 10 and seven seats, respectively, and 21 will go to the armed opposition.
Putin is eager to declare ‘mission accomplished’ ahead of the Russian New Year in early January – and to bring his troops back home before Russians go to the polls to re-elect him in March
After Riyadh wraps up on November 25, several opposition figures will fly to Switzerland two days later, supposedly as members of one unified delegation. Few have any hope that Geneva will result in a breakthrough, especially after the recent meeting between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, in Vietnam, in which the US president sought an extended stay for his troops only in northeastern Syria, ostensibly until after the political process concludes — which Putin gladly okayed. Previously the Americans had been saying US troops would leave Syrian territory once ISIS is defeated.
Putin and Trump also agreed that only a political solution will do for Syria, rather than a military one. They called for “elections” without specifying whether those should be presidential or parliamentary. Their joint statement then acknowledged: “President Assad’s recent commitment to the Geneva process and constitutional reforms and elections as called for under UNSCR 2254.” There was no talk of the Syrian president’s future or any call for his departure. Many in the opposition saw this as a de facto legitimization of his continued rule.
Such acquiescence from Trump was music to Putin’s ears. The former agreed to let the Sochi conference pass without interference from the US: America will not support it publicly but is equally uninterested in bringing it down.
Putin realizes that he needs to deliver when it comes to a political process, now that ISIS is all but finished throughout Syria. He is eager to declare “mission accomplished” in the country ahead of the Russian New Year in early January – and to bring his troops back home before Russians go to the polls to re-elect him in March. For Putin, Sochi must succeed, with a deal signed off by him personally.
The sticking point in all previous talks to date has been the fate and future of Assad. Riyadh has constantly insisted that he needs to depart before a political transition kicks off, while Moscow and Tehran claim otherwise, arguing that he is entitled to run for a fourth term when his current tenure expires in 2021. Alarmingly for the Syrian opposition, the brief encounter between Presidents Putin and Trump in Vietnam did little to advance their position on the matter.