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 community as a power that can negotiate with representatives of the regime.
Whether Russia and Iran will choose escalation or accommodation partly depends on the nature of this newly shaped Syrian opposition. To assuage international concerns over terrorist infiltration within the opposition, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar have tasked Jordan with creating a “who’s who” list of the Syrian rebels that would separate the “terrorists” from the “moderates.” The easy part is identifying adherents to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and Jabhat Al Nusra, the Syrian branch of al Qaeda. The hard part is vetting the rest of the Syrian rebel groups, with Moscow and Tehran breathing down Amman’s neck. Russia and Iran are closely monitoring the situation and are most concerned about the Saudi-sponsored Jaysh Al Islam, a collection of 12 rebel groups, and the Turkish- and Qatari-backed Ahrar Al Sham, an ultraconservative Islamist faction of more than 25,000 fighters with Syrian nationalist leanings.
That both groups participated in last week’s conference in Riyadh suggests that they will not be labeled as terrorist groups, despite Ahrar Al Sham’s military entente and its sporadic coordination with Jabhat Al Nusra. The groups’ involvement in the conference drew the ire of Russia and Iran, but their objections could be tempered if Saudi Arabia and Turkey manage to extract concessions from their surrogates.
Asking Ahrar Al Sham to meaningfully compromise won’t be easy because its negotiation ceiling is very high. Its maximalist demands include the establishment of Sharia law in any future Syrian state (which would undermine the secular nature of the state); the total dismantlement of the regime, including its security apparatus (which could lead to the collapse of order, similar to what happened in Iraq in 2003 after the undoing of the Iraqi state); and the rejection of any future government that is based on sectarian and ethnic quotas (even though Syrian society contains various sects and ethnicities, all of whom should be represented in any new political system).
Despite these problematic demands, Ahrar Al Sham did sign off on the final communiqué that came out of the Riyadh conference, which clearly calls for an all-inclusive, civic state. It’s possible, of course, that the group plans to change its mind if and when the transition takes place and then impose its dogmatic preferences. But that is a risk probably worth taking because the alternative—the exclusion of one of the most powerful Syrian rebels groups—would be costly if it leads to Ahrar Al Sham effectively partnering with Jabhat Al Nusra. It is also possible that if the group assumes a political role that is commensurate with its size and power in a future Syrian state, the burden of governance might temper its mindset and make it more accepting of notions of political tolerance and pluralism. That’s a long shot, though, given its Salafi jihadi ideology.
What helps considerably is that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar have leverage over their proxies—they can stop sending them weapons and money and helping them with intelligence and logistics. However, for these countries to exercise this leverage, Russia and Iran have to give something in return, and it starts with agreeing to a political transition that leads to Assad departing the political scene. There’s no way around it; no party in Syria will be able to achieve its objectives at the expense of its adversaries or without incurring enormous costs. It’s good that all regional powers agree that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict. But this consensus is not enough. They now have to find a way to compromise to attain a political solution. This is where the real diplomacy resides.