A quick reading of the closing statement issued by the first Riyadh conference at the end of 2015 and the closing statement issued by the Riyadh II meeting recently may not reveal the many differences between the two. Perhaps the paragraph which has drawn attention is the one which clearly states that the negotiations should be “unconditional.” The text repeated the need to comply with the Geneva I statement and related international resolutions as the sole reference for the negotiating process, as well as repeatedly talking about “the departure of Bashar al-Assad and his clique.”
However, an examination of the two statements will lead one to note numerous other differences, some of which may be difficult to explain in their motives or predict their effects, while some others can be explained easily in light of the climate which accompanied the conference and in light of the fact that representatives of the Cairo and Moscow platforms will be present in the negotiating authority emerging from the conference, which is supposed to operate under this statement.
In terms of the vision of those meeting to form a political system in the Syrian state, the Riyadh II statement stipulated that the state which the political settlement aims to establish is “a democratic state based on a principle of equal citizenship,” and specifies the need for “Syria to be a state with a system of democratic rule,” which was absent from the Riyadh I statement, to the benefit of talk about faith in the “civil state” and complying with “a democratic mechanism through a pluralistic state.” The explanation of this may relate to the decline of the influence of Islamic forces in formulating the statement, because it was clear that the talk only about a “democratic mechanism,” without democracy itself as a description for the state and the ruling system, aimed to delay a dispute about the meaning of the civil state and its conception.
The Riyadh II statement also stipulated clearly that the Syrian state was “multi-ethnic and multi-cultural,” and that “the Kurdish issue is a Syrian national issue,” while the Riyadh I statement had been content to make reference to a “pluralistic system which represents the full spectrum of the Syrian people without discrimination or exclusion on a religious, sectarian or ethnic basis.” This may be due to the understanding that clear statements needed to be added around the rights of the Kurdish people to reduce the impact of the absence of balancing representatives from among the Syrian Kurds. In addition, the Riyadh II statement repeated what was said in the Riyadh I statement regarding the Syrian state needing to be based on a decentralized administration.
Regarding the position on terrorism and international and regional interventions, the Riyadh II statement repeated what was said in the Riyadh I statement around rejecting terrorism and the need for foreign fighters to leave Syrian territory, while also making reference to the need to evacuate foreign forces. It explicitly stipulated the rejection of the “Iranian role in upsetting security and stability in the region and creating demographic changes and the spreading of terrorism, including state terrorism and its foreign and sectarian militias.” It is clear that this direct reference to the Iranian role resulted from Saudi Arabia's recent announcement that it will confront Iranian interventions.
Regarding Assad’s departure, which many thought would not be referenced at all in the Riyadh II statement, it was noted clearly, but the method and formulation was totally different, suggesting a less rigid position on this issue.
The Riyadh I statement twice stressed the need for Assad and his clique to depart. The first mention came in the context of saying that “the political settlement aims to establish a new political system without Bashar al-Assad and his clique having a place in it,” and the second came after discussing the items of the transitional period which should be in accordance with the Geneva I statement, which said: “Those gathered stressed that Bashar al-Assad and his clique leave power with the beginning of the transitional stage.”
In the Riyadh II statement, Assad’s departure is not mentioned at all in the paragraph relating to the aims of the political settlement, and that is exchanged with discussion of “establishing a democratic state,” as noted above, with general talk about how “those who have been proven to participate in war crimes against Syrians do not have the right to participate in any future political arrangements.”
Assad’s departure is noted in the Riyadh II statement in the context of discussion of the need to comply with the Geneva I statement, saying that “it is essential to ensure the implementation of the transitional process in a way that guarantees the security of all in terms of security, stability and peace.” After that came the following sentence: “Those assembled stressed that this would not occur without the departure of Bashar al-Assad and his clique and the system of oppression and dictatorship upon the beginning of the transitional stage.” This is a less severe and explicit formulation than those in the Riyadh I statement — by putting it alongside a paragraph which discusses the need for the talks to be unconditional, it makes Assad’s departure an issue subject to negotiation.
This new paragraph in the Riyadh II statement says: “Those assembled stressed that direct, unconditional negotiations mean that all issues are discussed and put on the negotiations table, and that no party has the right to place preconditions, and the demand to implement what is provided in international resolutions is not considered a precondition or prohibiting putting forward and discussing all issues, including the form of government, its system and the powers of its authority and responsibility, and the position of the president of the republic, the government, and so forth.”
This paragraph, the subject of Riyadh II, which contains confusion and lack of clarity, stipulates that all issues are open to discussion, except those in international resolutions, the demand to implement which is not considered a precondition. Here we note that international resolutions contain issues varied in their interpretations as well, especially those related to the arrangements for trust-building, which the regime must carry out, and ending the sieges, stopping bombardment of civilian areas, freeing prisoners and, most importantly, the meaning of the term “fully empowered transitional governing body” as stipulated in the Geneva I statement.
The dispute between the regime and its supporters on one side and the opposition and its backers on the other around the interpretations of Geneva I and related international resolutions has emptied previous negotiating rounds of their meaning. But what is new today is that these disputes are now within the opposition delegation with the attendance of the Moscow platform. The Moscow platform expressed reservations on noting Assad’s departure in the statement. It is they who always declare that their interpretation of the term “fully empowered transitional governing body” does not at all mean that Assad must depart.
Beyond this, the reference in the Riyadh II document of the need to exclude those who have been proven to be complicit in war crimes from political arrangements does not close this gap, although the statement said that those who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity need to be held to account “in accordance with principles of transitional justice,” because this general talk does not reference any clear mechanism for justice or accountable, and it cannot be relied upon to say that it will eventually lead to excluding Assad and his war criminals.
Despite what seems at first glance in the Riyadh II statement to adhere to the basic demand of the Syrian revolution, the departure of Assad and holding him to account, the formulations that it includes, in addition to booby-trapping the delegation with entities who hold visions very close to those of the regime itself, are issues which will open the door to an endless, absurd process of negotiations, whose rounds within the opposition delegation itself could be longer and more complicated than those between the regime and the opposition. This comes at a time when it seems clear that the regime intends to continue its bloody war against its rivals, while continuing to dilute the already diluted political process. The most recent chapters of this dilution were the announcement of the delay of its delegation traveling to Geneva to begin a new round of talks, which had been expected on Tuesday, in protest over the Riyadh II statement making reference to the need for Assad’s departure.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.