Opposition Prepares for Riyadh Talks, Regime Flips Vienna Priorities on Their Head

Opposition representatives iron out kinks ahead of meetings in the Saudi capital, as sources report on the Assad regime’s reservations towards the results of the recent Vienna meetings

Informed sources continue to ensure the success of the Syrian opposition's conference in Riyadh at the beginning of next month, with the conference aiming to contribute to the formation of a negotiating delegation to the ministerial meeting of the International Syria Support Group, which will likely take place in Paris on December 13.

In addition, the Riyadh conference will discuss a list of "terrorist organizations" to be provided by Jordan, which will not include the Ahrar ash-Sham Islamic Movement or the Army of Islam.

As Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem conveyed on Wednesday, Damascus has "reservations" over Vienna’s quest to change the priorities of the Syrian file, as UN envoy Staffan de Mistura meets with the Syrian National Coalition’s leadership in Istanbul Monday ahead of talks with the leaders of opposition factions later in the week, in an attempt to urge parties to formulate a unified position and prepare for the conference.

Sources reported that an envoy from Damascus arrived in Moscow late last week to report the Assad regime’s misgivings towards the results of the Vienna meetings. Following Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad’s declaration in Tehran that Syria refuses to accept the formation of a “transitional governing body”, Minister for Reconciliation Ali Haidar criticized any "timetable" that is issued from abroad, while President Bashar al-Assad said he would not start any transitional process "before the defeat of terrorism and the restoration of all Syrian land." International experts believe that only about 20 percent of Syrian territory is still under the control of regime forces.

As Damascus still prefers the path of the Moscow Forum between the government delegation and some opponents of Geneva III, its aforementioned "reservations" include changing the priorities of Vienna's proposed timetable so that the political process could start with constitutional reforms through the formation of a joint committee, chaired between representatives of the Assad regime and the opposition. Early parliamentary elections would be held in the spring of next year following the end of term of the current parliament, rather than May or June, in addition to the continuation of positional reconciliations in the clash points. The Russian ideas, which were leaked before the last Vienna meeting, included the formation of an independent constitutional committee – without any interference from President Assad – a committee formed by the opposition and the regime to elect its president, announce a new constitution, and hold the elections.

However, the ministers and representatives of 20 countries and organizations acknowledged on November 14 a road map in a different sequence, as the Vienna statement included a timetable for negotiations between the delegations of the government and the opposition under international auspices to form a "representative, non-sectarian rule", followed by agreeing on a new constitution, and then holding elections under the supervision of United Nations within 18 months. Here, Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, rejected including whether the elections after the transitional period would be parliamentary or presidential in the Vienna statement. Zarif said: "as Syrians will decide their constitution, they will decide whether the president will be elected by parliament or in a direct ballot," so participants decided to leave the election open, without specifying: parliamentary or presidential.

Until the next ministerial meeting, communications condense in more than one direction, including those between officials, faction commanders and personnel of the opposition, to ensure the success of the opposition’s conference in Riyadh at the beginning of next month, with the participation of less than 70 delegates from the Syrian National Coalition, the Coordination Commission, independent figures and military factions, including the names contained in Washington’s list (15 people), the Moscow’s list (38 people), and the Arab list (25 people), so that participants reach a unified political position and coordinated negotiating delegation.

It is learned that Cairo hastily summoned the General Coordinator for the Coordination Commission, Hassan AbdulAzim, yesterday to inform him about the need to be part of the Cairo Declaration group because it "wishes to create a bloc to balance with the Syrian National Coalition." Hence, Cairo encouraged the leaders of the Declaration to travel to Vienna and hold meetings with US, Russian, French and Arab officials, pushing Qatari Foreign Minister, Khalid al-Attiyah, to invite the Coalition President, Khaled Khoja, along with leaders of a number of Islamist factions.

Cairo's attempts to advertise the Cairo Declaration did not succeed, as it struggles with Moscow to reduce the Coalition’s share of representation at the conference, as well as its delegation to Geneva III. As Moscow succeeded in "breaking the monopoly" of the Coalition's delegation over the other opposition delegation, unlike what happened at Geneva II, Russia now seeks to "eliminate its leadership role." In actuality, Moscow wants the Coalition to have no more than half of the opposition seats, but the strategy remains unapproved by other Arab countries, Turkey, the United States and Western nations.

Russian efforts to marginalize the Coalition collide with the efforts of other countries determined to support it, as the participants of Vienna agreed that it would constitute the major bloc in the next opposition conference (more than 40 percent), though the Coordination Commission will also participate as a bloc, while the rest of the opposition spectra will be invited individually, in addition to representatives of the Free Syrian Army and other armed opposition factions.

It was revealed that de Mistura will meet with leaders of the armed opposition factions in Istanbul on Tuesday, as one leader said: "We have reached a common position between the Islamic factions, and this position can be considered a reference for any political solution." The armed factions have begun to nominate their representatives in any political process or any opposition conference. It is expected that representatives of Ahrar ash-Sham Islamic Movement and the Army of Islam will participate in the conference, in addition to the Yarmouk Army and the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army.

Here comes the next complicated step: specifying the terrorist organizations, as the agreement in Vienna was limited to providing a list to the UN Security Council. The list surely included ISIS and Nusra Front, and Lavrov agreed to assign Jordan to convene a meeting between security officials to submit a list to the five permanent members of the Security Council. The security meeting will be held in the coming hours amidst a major split. Some factions were nominated to the "black list", including Jund al-Aqsa of the Army of Conquest, who refused to fight ISIS, in addition to the Army of Ansar, which has close ties to ISIS, and the Turkestan Islamic Army, which is close to the Army of Conquest.

Arab countries, backed by the United States, reject Iranian and Russian proposals to include Ahrar ash-Sham and the Army of Islam on the list. In fact, some Arab countries encouraged the idea of inviting representatives of these two faction to the Vienna conference, as these states believe it is necessary "for any political agreement to get legitimacy and popular acceptance," in addition to the importance of "unity against terrorism." Surprisingly, Moscow opened negotiating channels with the Army of Islam, led by Zahran Alloush, to reach a truce in Eastern Ghouta and save him from the "sword of terrorism and heavy Russian raids."

There is also the problem of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, as Turkey, which is also involved in security and political negotiations, considers the group a "terrorist" organization. Ankara also considers the Kurdish Democratic Union Party an ally for the Turkish People’s Worker’s Party, led by Abdullah Ocalan, whose name resides on US terrorist lists. At the same time, People’s Protection Units forces are supported by the fighter jets of the international coalition led by the US in their fight against ISIS in northern and northeastern Syria. US experts are also currently training and arming the Syrian Democratic Forces, which consists mainly of Kurdish People’s Protection Units.

Moscow has sought to form a ground alliance with the Units to fight ISIS, at a time when it seemed the group’s leadership is trying to maintain a balance between air and military support from the US and political support from Russia. What increased the complexity of the situation is that the Turkish and US air forces have began to provide air cover for the advance of Muslim and Turkmen factions in an area located between Carchemish on the Turkish border and Mare` in the countryside of Aleppo. This development prevents the linking of Ayn al-Arab (Kobani) with Afrin, which Turkey considers a "red line" to prevent the establishment of a “Syrian Kurdistan” on its southern border.

As a result, there is strong pressure from Moscow and Tehran to guarantee the participation of the Kurdish self-administration in the political negotiations and the conference of the opposition, offset by a pressure to marginalize the Kurdish Units on the pretext of a commitment to the principles of the Vienna statement about the unity of Syria.

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.

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