Syrian opposition and rebel factions have agreed to talks with the regime, but insist that Assad step down. The brief withdrawal of a powerful Islamist faction could complicate negotiations.
A divided Syrian political opposition and armed rebel groups agreed for the first time on Thursday to to sit down with representatives of the Assad regime in international peace talks to end the nearly five-year-old conflict.
But the opposition meeting in the Saudi capital of Riyadh was overshadowed by powerful Islamist rebel faction Ahrar al-Sham walking out of the talks, before apparently signing onto the unified stance. The absence of the Syrian Kurdish faction controlling large parts of northern Syria also complicated negotiations.
After two-days of talks trying to form a unitied position to prospective early January negotiations with the Assad regime, the myriad stripes of the Syrian political opposition inside and outside the country, alongside various rebel factions, agreed to an inclusive and democratic Syria with no future for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime.
"The participants are ready to negotiate with representatives of the Syrian regime based on the Geneva 1 communiqué... within a specific timeframe that would be agreed on with the United Nations," the group said in a statement, referring to a 2012 peace conference envisioning a transitional government.
The Riyadh meeting was attended by representatives of the opposition in exile, the Syrian National Council, the Syria-based National Coordination Body for Democratic Change and Syrian State Movement, and rebel factions ranging from secular to Islamist.
While representing a broad spectrum of Syrian society, the groups that were invited largely reflected the preferences of external parties to the conflict - Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the US, and Qatar among others - each of which backs various groups in the conflict. Iran condemned the meeting.
The powerful al Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front and "Islamic State" were not invited.
Out of the Riyadh meeting the group agreed that state institutions could remain in place but "without Bashar al-Assad or figures of his regime having a place in it or any future political arrangements."
The role of Assad in a transitional or future government has been a major sticking point in international talks to end the conflict, with the Assad regime's backers, Russia and Iran, insisting the Syrian people have a say in the president's role.
Faced with a threat from the "Islamic State," a wave of refugees, and Russian intervention, the West has softened its stance on Assad, leaving his role in a transition ambiguous in international peace talks joined by top diplomats from 20 nations in Vienna last month. None of the Syrian opposition and rebel factions were invited to Vienna.
The Riyadh group, represented by some 100 delegates, called for the international community to compel Assad to implement confidence building measures, including a stop of executions, halt of regime sieges on towns to allow humanitarian aid to enter, and the release of political prisoners. The statement also called for Assad to stop forced displacement and dropping barrel bombs on civilians.
To prepare for talks with the regime a joint body representing various factions will be established, followed by the selection of a negotiating team to join UN-mediated talks and implemention of a future ceasefire.
Prominent Islamic rebels walks out
Turkey and Qatar-backed Ahrar al-Sham, one of the most powerful Islamist military forces in northwestern Syria with close ties to al-Nusra, walked out of the talks in a move that could cast doubt on the credibility of the Riyadh group to negotiate and implement any agreement with the Assad regime.
However, in a copy of the final statement seen by news agency Reuters, an Ahrar al-Sham delegate reportedly signed onto the agreement. Despite its signing on, the brief withdrawal nonetheless reveals deep divisions within the opposition that could impact negotiations with the regime and international powers.
In a statement announcing its withdrawal, Ahrar al-Sham objected to the inclusion of the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (NCB), which is against armed struggle and is viewed as close to the regime and Moscow.
The Islamist group also said the conference -- stacked with an exiled political opposition that has little influence on the ground -- had not given "real weight to the revolutionary factions."
Unlike al-Nusra, whose fighters are filled with foreign fighters, the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham consists largely of Sunni Arab Syrians. It rejected the outcome of the meeting because it "did not affirm the identity of our Muslim people."
Ahrar al-Sham could play a major spoiler role in any future ceasefire with the regime.
The US has approached the hard-line Ahrar al-Sham with caution, neither discounting including the group in the future of Syria nor opening up to it.
US officials have indicated their position vis-à-vis the Salafist group would likely be determined by its relationship with al-Nusra and its ability to compromise and work with the broader Syrian opposition.
For its part, Russia has insisted international powers come up with a list of terrorist organizations - which would from Moscow's view include groups such as Ahrar al-Sham - and legitimate opposition to negotiate with the Syrian regime.
On Wednesday, Ahrar al-Sham had said they came to Riyadh "to stress that we want to liberate all the territories under Russian and Iranian hegemony, to oust the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to preserve the sovereignty of our country." It also called for "the complete cleansing of the Russian-Iranian occupation of Syrian land, and the sectarian militias which support it."
Kurds hold separate conference
Meanwhile, notably left uninvited to the Riyadh talks were the main Syrian Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its militia, the People's Protection Units (YPG).
The YPG recently formed a new US-backed group dubbed the Syrian Democratic Forces consisting of some Free Syrian Army units, Arab tribes and Assyrian Christians. In many ways the SDF is a new front for an alliance among the same forces that have been fighting against IS together in the past.
The Syrian Kurds have carved out autonomous zones in northeast Syria and been some of the best fighters against the "Islamic State." They have also clashed with al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other Islamist factions, who accuse the Kurds of cooperating with the regime and attempting to divide Syria. Meanwhile, the western-backed Syrian National Coalition complains that the Kurds only fight against the "Islamic State" but not against Assad.
The Kurds argue they have followed a so-called "third-path" of neither siding with the regime nor an Arab opposition that does not promise Kurdish rights.
Separate from Riyadh, the Syrian Democratic Forces wrapped up their own conference on Thursday in the northeastern province of Hassaka, where they created a new political front dubbed the Syrian Democratic Council.
The new body called for a decentralized, democratic and pluralistic Syria that recognizes minority and women's rights.
On the issue of Assad, the Syrian Democratic Council said Assad was both part of the problem and solution. An end to the conflict could be reached through negotiations with the regime, a transition period, democratic elections and a new constitution that recognizes Kurdish rights, the new body said.
The Syrian Kurds' exclusion from the talks in Riyadh is widely seen as a concession to Turkey, which with its large Kurdish population has been concerned about Kurdish autonomy in Syria and the YPG's ties to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
cw/bw (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)