Later today in the Saudi capital Riyadh, over 100 Syrian opposition figures, including some independents with close association to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his closest ally Iran, are scheduled to start a two-day negotiation process that is designed to produce a unified – or semi-unified – position of the otherwise conflicting groups for the future of the country that has turned into the world’s top refugee exporter.
The Riyadh meeting is held on the basis of the initial understandings that were reached earlier in the month during the meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Vienna. The Vienna process has designated a six-month period for a transitional government to be assembled and for presidential elections in 18 months – without the re-nomination of Al-Assad.
Beyond the creation of a “unifying” umbrella for the Syrian opposition – excluding those affiliated with radical militant groups like ISIS – the Riyadh meeting is also expected to produce a unified Syrian opposition delegation that could start negotiations with the regime of Al-Assad on the basis of an agenda of common understandings that are also expected to be produced in the Saudi capital in the next 48 hours – with a little extension possible.
“Let us be realistic here; it is a challenging task ahead of the Syrians who are arriving in Riyadh, as it is for the Saudi host that has been using every skill and influence to assemble this meeting,” said an international diplomatic source.
Saudi Arabia is thought by the Syrian opposition figures, the top international players and most of the regional players as the ideal host for this challenging diplomatic mission, say informed diplomatic sources.
Riyadh, the same sources say, is in a position to include the Islamist and militant factions that have been excluded from the now bypassed Cairo dialogue for the secular opposition. Also, unlike Turkey, Saudi Arabia is in a position to accommodate the Kurdish opposition.
According to the international diplomatic source, “This is a very important meeting because at the very least it could start a process towards a political and military de-escalation to reduce the suffering of the Syrian people and to hopefully stop the inundation of refugees,” the source said.
In the run-up to today’s meeting, the Saudi diplomacy has been using its influence to pave the way towards the tough job of composing a united and representative delegation that should, according to the Vienna document, start a process of negotiations with the Al-Assad regime in January.
The stipulated date is 1 January, but informed diplomatic sources say this is too ambitious – some suggest it is unrealistic.
“Sometime around January would be good – it does not have to be the first, but sometime around there,” the source said.
Deciding the future of Al-Assad is one of the main points that the delegates in Riyadh have to agree on with help/pressure from the Saudi host and the support of American diplomacy, which seems determined to “fix” the situation in Syria as a pre-requisite to defeating ISIS. Some among the delegates in Riyadh today are strictly opposed to any transition process that might include Al-Assad, according to one Arab diplomat.
“This is becoming a very unlikely scenario – to just remove Al-Assad,” said the Arab diplomat. “I think there is an international consensus now that includes Washington and Paris that Al-Assad has to be at least part of the early transition phase to avoid a total collapse of the already shaken state institutions,” he said.
The parameters of the role of Al-Assad, and for that matter his Alawite ruling clique, is also a question to settle.
Then, the delegates would have to agree about their respective shares in the aspired negotiating delegation – and for that matter their respective weight in decision-making once the process of negotiations with the Al-Assad regime starts.
In the transition process, addressing issues such as a ceasefire, the war against ISIS, the chances for the refugees to come back and the need for an international presence are matters left for later.
“We just hope to have the Saudi host come out to say that they managed to get a unified opposition front that has agreed upon basic points, then things could get started,” the international diplomatic source said.
Informed sources admit that there are “several” regional powers who might use their influence to obstruct/complicate the Riyadh mission.
This could be anyone from Arab states who might not be too happy with Riyadh’s new diplomatic leadership role in the region, to regional capitals who may act to block an agreement in the Saudi capital if they felt it might weaken their Syrian allies.
However, according to the same diplomatic sources, there is a reason for all stakeholders to ultimately support an agreement in Riyadh.
“The formula that the Saudis are working on with the help of the Americans would accommodate the interests-concerns of almost all parties,” the international diplomatic source said.
He argued that both Russia and Iran – and to an extent Egypt – would ensure that Al-Assad would not be immediately removed out of the picture.
“For the Russians and Iranians this is about an ally, for the Egyptians this is about the stability of Syria and the limitations to be imposed on the Islamists.”
The Turks, who might wish to block the process in order to give Russia a hard time by expanding their inevitable military intervention in Syria, would have a certain presence of the Turkmens in the political process and would make sure that the Kurdish participation is designed in a way that does not start a wide regional Kurdish political ambition for quasi-independence.
Qatar, which had supported the Islamists, would have its allies present in the political process as in the transitional government.
The limited role of the Muslim Brotherhood – a leader of which is in Riyadh as an independent delegate, said one informed source – would be reassuring for the Egyptian authorities, who are “declining to see the many differences between the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and that of Syria,” said the international diplomatic source.
Saudi Arabia itself stands to gain by de-escalating the regional tension to a point wherein the Iranians would be reassured enough about their influence in Syria and Lebanon and would start to ease the pressure they are putting on Saudi Arabia and its allies in Yemen – the ultimate Saudi backyard.
For the West, the beginning of a conducive – even if tough and uncertain – political process could work towards an end to the dilemma of refugees and overwhelming Middle East chaos.
According to one European diplomat, “If Syria is put on the right track, then the world could start and pay overdue attention to the explosive situation in Libya – as part of the larger war on ISIS and of the efforts to contain the refugee problem.”