December 11, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Minefield of Syrian Unification

• No one has benefited more from the fractious nature of the Syrian opposition than the Assad regime

• The ongoing 3-day conference in Riyadh is aimed to unify, as much as possible, the opposition into a group that has international backing while maintaining local support and trust

• The unifying effort is fraught with intrigue and infighting; the civil war will have negative consequences that radiate across the region for years to come, regardless if unification does take place

• Facts on the ground will matter more than talks in Riyadh, and excluded groups such as the Syrian Kurds, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Islamic State remain powerful yet unacceptable players.


Nothing in Syria is straightforward except for the suffering. When it comes to the civil war, even meaningful milestones—such as the Syrian opposition meeting in Riyadh—are fraught with pessimism. The meeting, the first of its size, produced a statement calling for a unified opposition to the Assad regime, yet one of the more powerful factions pulled out of the talks even before the statement was given. Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist group with some ties to al-Qaeda, left the talks after objecting that too many seats were given to the National Coordination Committee, an internal leftist opposition group seen by most others as far too sympathetic to the regime. The walk-out might be a calculated and temporary statement, but it might also signal that the deep divisions that have kept the opposition from unifying their efforts against the regime will persist, with deadly consequences for the Syrian people.

The goal of the Riyadh meeting is to create a unified opposition that can then enter into talks with the Assad regime early in 2016. This effort is complicated by more than the competing internal Syrian goals and ideologies of hundreds of rebel groups; it is also driven by competing regional and international powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Iran, Russia, the United States, and the European Union. The opposition’s statement laid out its goal to 'create a state based on the principle of citizenship without Bashar al-Assad or figures of his regime having a place in it or any future political arrangements.'

Even the anodyne term ‘transition period’ is a source of major contention. The rebels want Assad and most of his officials out of power and gone before the transition begins. Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers view the transition period as an undetermined length of time in which Assad would work with acceptable opposition elements to rid the country of ‘terrorists’ before he would even consider stepping down—and even then, would only step down if it were ‘the will of the people.’ Given that Assad defines almost all opposition as ‘terrorism,’ it is difficult to reconcile the two visions of transition, let alone what follows.

If it were only a matter of negotiating-while-fighting between the Assad regime and the rebel groups present in Riyadh, the path to peace would already be tortuously difficult; adding the power of those excluded from the talks—such as the so-called Islamic StateJabhat al-Nusra, and the Syrian Kurds—and the path becomes a minefield. Northern Syria, for the most part, is held by groups that are not going to play a role in any talks. These groups hold territory even if they do not hold a seat at the negotiating table. In the case of the Islamic State and al-Nusra, both designated terrorist organizations, these groups simply cannot be brought into the fold in terms of a future Syria; they will have to be marginalized and then militarily defeated. The Syrian Kurds are also unlikely to give back their hard-earned gains in the northeast simply to appease Turkey, adding yet more mines to the minefield.

In essence, the rebel groups meeting in Riyadh will have to agree on negotiation with and fighting the Assad regime while cajoling and fighting Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State, and any groups that support either of the two. The Assad supporters will argue that the fight should first focus on the extremists (with the caveat that the regime gets to define who classifies as extremist) before any serious effort can be made at a political resolution. The meeting in Riyadh is a positive accomplishment given the dearth of even symbolic or temporary half-measures; turning this small step into a path towards ending the war will require a consistent push that has heretofore been lacking on all sides.


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