The Syrian Opposition Faces an Existential Crisis

Under pressure by foreign backers to compromise, the Syrian opposition is struggling to find its voice. It is increasingly coming to the realization that the status quo might ultimately lead to having President Bashar Assad stay in power, at least for a transitional period. After losing two crucial bargaining chips—significant territorial control in different parts of Syria, and the ability to offer and accept a ceasefire—the Syrian opposition is unable to force a compromise and has no game plan for what might come next as the Syrian war winds down.

Both the regime and the opposition have been prodded in recent weeks to embark on new peace talks and be ready to make significant compromises. On November 20, the Saudi-backed umbrella organization for the Syrian opposition, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), saw its head, Riyad Hijab, and eight of his team members resign, paving the way for a softer stance on the negotiation table, as Moscow and Riyadh agreed to unify the Syrian opposition. In return, Assad was summoned on November 21 to the Black Sea resort in Sochi, Russia, to show gratitude to President Vladimir Putin as well as flexibility to hold elections and amend Syria’s constitution. All these preparations led to the November 21 phone call between Putin and his American counterpart Donald Trump, and the trilateral meeting among the presidents of Russia, Iran, and Turkey in Sochi on November 22, who reiterated their coordinated efforts in driving the push to end the Syrian civil war. Despite all these efforts, the latest round of the Geneva talks failed on December 14 and the Syrian opposition remains in disarray.

The Riyadh II Conference: Background and Challenges

The first Riyadh conference was held in December 2015. It was based on the recommendations of the October 2015 Vienna conference that included the United States, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, among 17 participants. The 2015 version of the HNC included former regime officials and rebels with hawkish views, reflecting at that time the tempo of the battlefield and the Saudi approach to the Syrian war. However, the opposition had a unity challenge; it was represented in previous Geneva talks in 2016 and 2017 by three groups known as the Riyadh platform (the HNC), the Cairo platform (a small group of secularist figures, previously aligned with the regime), and the Moscow platform (a group closer to the Russian perspective on Syria). The three groups had differences on crucial issues, including Assad’s role in the transitional period. That disarray made it easier for the regime to discredit negotiations and continue attempts to alter the balance of power on the ground.

In the Riyadh II conference that was held on November 22-24, the platforms of Cairo and Moscow were included in the HNC in preparation of the United Nations (UN)-sponsored talks in Geneva and the Russian-sponsored talks in Sochi the next month. Nasr al-Hariri was selected as the new general coordinator of the HNC with three deputies, one from the Cairo platform (Gamal Suleiman) and two independents (Hanadi Abu Yaaroub and Khaled al-Mahameed).1 The large number of participants made it harder to agree on a selection process and to accommodate the demands of the various groups; hence the committee number was increased from 30 to 50. There was a realization soon after that the assembly might be too large to manage, so the decision was made to have the 50 selected individuals serve as the high secretariat in an advisory capacity to the official 36-member HNC. A majority of 26 out of 36 would be needed to make decisions; however, the platforms of Cairo and Moscow insisted on attending all the meetings and on having a combined veto power. Furthermore, a negotiation team of 23 members was formed, with six acting as the main negotiators (representing the six blocs in attendance at Riyadh II, as shown below).

Syrian opposition conference – Riyadh II (November 2017)

Compared to 2015, the most notable changes in Riyadh II are a decrease in the number of the National Council for the Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces participants and an increase in the number of independents. The majority shareholder in the HNC is Saudi Arabia while the minority shareholders are the United States, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, and Moscow. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main Kurdish group, was not invited to either the 2015 or the 2017 conferences. The Kurdish National Council’s request to be represented as a separate group was denied; instead, Kurdish figures were represented through the Syrian National Council and the independents’ bloc.

Syrian opposition conference – Riyadh I (December 2015)

Hijab’s resignation reignited disagreements within the Syrian opposition and highlighted the strong leverage Saudi Arabia has over the HNC. Hijab and his team claimed they were excluded from the preparations and were not invited to Riyadh II. With the objective of eliminating disloyal and hawkish figures, Saudi Arabia exerted full control over the conference.

For instance, Riyadh set the quota of representatives for each political alliance with a rate that does not exceed 15 percent of overall participation. In return, Saudi Arabia issued invitations to 70 independent Syrians who were the deciding vote in selecting the HNC, hence marginalizing the National Council for the Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces and the armed opposition. Furthermore, as in 2015, the Riyadh II conference sessions were chaired2 by the head of the Jeddah-based Gulf Research Center, Abdulaziz al-Saqr.

One result of the Riyadh II conference was the emergence of a new opposition to the HNC. Two hundred and fifty Syrian opposition figures (from the National Council for the Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, Damascus Declaration, and former HNC leaders) signed a statement on November 28 and accused the new HNC of appeasing Russia and not representing the aspirations of the Syrian people. The statement’s main argument is that the makeup of the new HNC is preparing the Syrian opposition to become receptive to reconciliation with the regime.

Where the New HNC Stands on Major Issues

The language of the concluding statement3 in Riyadh II reflects the changing mood of the Syrian opposition and its backers, compared to 2015. Two noteworthy additions stand out: the concept of administrative centralization and an acknowledgement that “the Kurdish issue is part of the national issue.” These additions are meant to pave the way for local governance in areas outside the Syrian regime’s control.

In other instances, the latest statement adopts more diplomatic language. The phrase “expulsion of sectarian militias” is replaced by “evacuation of all foreign forces.” The preconditions of 2015 disappeared in 2017. The readiness to negotiate with the regime “during a specific time period agreed upon with the United Nations” became “unconditional direct negotiations.”

Some provisions were more subtle and became speculative rather than directive. The recently adopted statement asks that all issues should be on the table, but it does not stipulate them to be part of the solution. It calls for a transitional government but merely suggests that this interim body cannot operate in “a safe and calm environment” unless Bashar al-Assad leaves at the beginning of the transition. The most crucial change, however, was in defining the “goal of the political compromise.” In 2015, the goal was to “establish a new political regime where Bashar al-Assad and his clique have no place.” The latest statement defines the goal as “establishing a democratic state,” amending the constitution, and holding free elections.

The Syrian Opposition’s Challenges

On December 14, the United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura harshly criticized the Syrian regime for not showing readiness to negotiate after all the efforts to unify the Syrian opposition at the request of Moscow. The Syrian regime wanted instead to focus solely on combating terrorism and ignored talking about the election and the transition period. The Syrian permanent representative to the United Nations, Bashar al-Jaafari, who also led the Syrian regime’s negotiating team, asked4 Saudi Arabia “to instruct the Syrian opposition to cancel the Riyadh II statement”; otherwise, there would be no direct negotiations.

It is becoming clear that Russia hopes to replace Geneva with the Sochi talks. While the regime sabotaged the Geneva talks, the Syrian opposition will most probably do the same in Sochi next month. The participation of US Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield in the eighth round of talks in Geneva in November (Geneva 8) shows a renewed US commitment to these talks to balance the Russian attempt to pursue an alternative track. The Trump Administration has largely stayed away from the Syrian political process, allowing Russia instead to take the lead. Satterfield’s presence in Geneva could signal a limited shift, but there are no indications that Washington is willing to invest political capital in the process.

The role of the United Nations as a facilitator of the Syrian talks is being questioned after the failure of Geneva 8. The multiple military and political tracks are confusing the peace talks, as Astana and now Sochi are undermining genuine negotiations in Geneva. While the Syrian exiled opposition is improving its overall performance, it might be too little, too late, as the dynamics of the Syrian conflict have drastically changed. The Syrian opposition has limited options to resist Russian pressure.

As a political entity, the opposition is now restricted to a negotiation team that wants to reform the regime and have a stake in the ruling of Syria. The Kurdish issue is still not on the table for the Syrian opposition. It is hard to see how conflict resolution could occur without engaging the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which controls nearly 25 percent of Syria. Nasr al-Hariri became both the general coordinator of the HNC and head of the negotiation team, unlike the previous duality of having Hijab as general coordinator and al-Hariri as the lead negotiator—which raises questions about accountability for the decisions the opposition will take during the negotiations.

The HNC has a legitimacy problem as much as the regime does. A long overdue election in 2018 is probably the only way to capture the mood of the country and the position of the Syrian people on these divisive issues.

1 Based on the Saudi Arabian tentative list of invitees to the conference and the author’s personal research and contacts.

2 Source is in Arabic.

3 Source is in Arabic.

4 Source is in Arabic.