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Riyadh’s Opposition Talks: a Potemkin Process?

Despite the opposition’s relative success in Riyadh in forming a unified front against Assad, it shouldn’t allow its progress to obscure shifting international allegiances inside Syria, particularly as the West actively strengthens partnerships with groups openly hostile to the mainstream opposition.

Written by Evan Barrett Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Last week in Riyadh, the Saudi government gathered together delegates representing various factions of the armed and unarmed Syrian opposition. Despite a certain lack of diversity among the representatives – Kurds and women were both underrepresented – the conference was successful in uniting political and military delegates of a wide ideological breadth and forging consensus on terms for negotiating with the regime. Even with its variety of perspectives and interests, the conference was able to produce a statement of principles that almost any Western power would be pleased with, which acknowledged the problem of terrorism and foreign fighters, committed to democratic institutions without de-Baathification, and provided guarantees regarding the place of minorities in a future Syria.

Despite the last-minute exit of crucial rebel faction Ahrar al-Sham, the conference was hailed as an impressive success. Indeed, even though the statement of principles built upon commitments outlined in the original Geneva Communique, Riyadh received buy-ins from armed actors that were not present at previous opposition conferences. This should give international sponsors much needed assurances about the willingness of brigades inside Syria to implement plans deemed acceptable by the West.

In spite of these achievements, the Riyadh conference comes at an extremely perilous time for the revolution, with the space between Western rhetoric and material commitment at its widest to date. As Russia and Iran continue to increase men and materiel inside of Syria on behalf of the regime, the West flounders and lacks a consistent or impactful Syria policy. The presumptive alliance between the mainstream Syrian opposition and the United States may amount to little more than a rhetorical fig leaf. Even as the West nominally retains its role as sponsor of the opposition, Western countries are taking more and more deliberate steps to create partnerships with groups in open conflict with major stakeholders in the revolution.

In Aleppo over the past few weeks, for example, conflict between the newly minted Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and mainstream rebel coalitions in Aleppo City have erupted outside of Afrin. The genesis of the fighting is hotly contested, but it has clarified the nature of the SDF. Though billed as a joint Arab-Kurdish fighting force, the willingness of the SDF to battle with anti-Assad Arab rebels makes clear that the Kurdish People’s Protection Forces (YPG) is the real decision maker in the body. There is also increasing evidence that just as the SDF is receiving ammunition and weapons from the US, the broader Democratic Union Party, (PYD – the political body controlling the YPG) is deepening its coordination with the Assad government, and considering, if not downright soliciting, partnership with Russia. Analysts have been suggesting for months that the group may be pursuing some kind of “strategic alliance with Assad and Russia” to achieve their goal of connecting Kurdish cantons.

Even as the SDF/YPG clash with armed opposition factions, the list of nations who find the PYD an acceptable partner in the counter-terroriism fight continues to expand. As Aaron Lund wrote about the SDF earlier this week:

Using the new SDF coalition, the organization (PYD) strives to conceal its own commanding role while adding non-Kurds to the group and presenting it as a national opposition alliance rather than as a narrow regional or ethnic project. In this way, they’re playing to what could be a critical mass of interested actors, collectively able to override Turkish objections: Americans, Europeans, Russians, Iranians, and the Syrian government.

Even as progress was made in Riyadh, Kurdish parties and their partners held their own conference in Malikiyeh. This conference fostered the creation of a corresponding political body to the SDF, perhaps in anticipation of the coalition’s inclusion in future rounds of negotiations. This conference also managed to peel Haytham Manna (former head of the National Coordinating Body) away from Riyadh, lending the Kurdish process a major Syrian-Arab dissident whom both the regime and the Russians are comfortable with. An effort to include non-Kurdish partners acceptable to a wide range of international players may indicate the real scope and ambition of the Malikiyeh Conference. As Kurdish armed groups receive more and more support, the PYD is creating political partnerships that could also appear seductive to internationals.

Opposition parties are to be lauded for their commitment to the Riyadh process, and for developing a productive and unified platform in advance of negotiations. However, the opposition should not let its own progress obscure shifting international allegiances inside Syria. In an all-too-common pattern, the international community, immensely exhausted and led by a feckless United States, is actively developing partners openly hostile to the mainstream opposition. In a frustrated West, where the flavor of the Syrian revolution has grown sour, the Kurdish PYD may represent a middle path. An abandonment of the Syrian opposition for a new partnership with the Kurds is less dramatic than a stunning reversal towards partnership with Assad, but still valuable for Western politicians mainly concerned with the anti-ISIS fight. The Middle East is littered with the corpses of those who thought themselves valued American partners. Let’s hope the opposition is hedging its bets as well.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

Top image: A Syrian Kurdish sniper looks at the rubble in the Syrian city of Ain al-Arab, also known as Kobani on January 30, 2015. (AP Photo, File)

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