Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has made it clear that he has no interest in negotiating with rebels, whom he considers “terrorists.” His allies, Moscow and Tehran, also continue to rebuff demands for him to step down. So did it matter that, last week, members of the Syrian opposition repeated their calls for Assad’s removal in a conference in Riyadh? It is hardly consequential in the near term. But the conference’s goal—to put the Syrian opposition’s house in order—is a worthy one. In fact, it is critical for international efforts to end the civil war.
Riyadh, along with Ankara and Doha, is committed to toppling Assad. Yet what all three capitals have finally realized is that the Syrian leader’s departure, whether by force or negotiation, cannot be achieved without a more coherent Syrian opposition that can speak with one voice in international fora and effectively join arms on the battlefield. Of course, unifying the huge mess that is the Syrian opposition is easier said than done. And it’s not like it hasn’t been tried before. Over the past four years, none of the attempts by various countries to unify the rebels and the politicians has worked. And so, Saudi Arabia will try to succeed where others before it have failed, even though its own record of bringing together rival Palestinian groups over the years has not been stellar.
In a sense, Riyadh cannot afford to fail. A more integrated Syrian opposition is at the core of its diplomatic and military plans in Syria. If Russia and Iran continue to reject negotiations over Assad’s fate, Saudi Arabia’s response will be to work more closely with Turkey and Qatar and step up arms and money transfers to what they hope will be a more structured rebel apparatus. If Russia and Iran approve talks in January, the Saudi–Turkish–Qatari axis will want to rein in this new force and present it before the international
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