In Saudi Arabia on 24 November 2017, the so-called “Riyadh Two” Conference for the Syrian opposition concluded by selecting a delegation that further eroded the meaning of “opposition”, while retaining the formality of being an opposition by issuing a statement that insisted on the departure of Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Asad.
The opposition delegation to Geneva elected in Riyadh will be headed by Nasr al-Hariri, the Secretary General of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), after Riyadh Hijab, elected leader of the Higher Negotiating Committee that was formed by “Riyadh One” in December 2015, resigned on 20 November.
The new delegation will also include:
- Nine other members of the SNC: Badr al-Jamous, Hadi Bahra, AbdulAhid Stiefo, Abdul Ilah Fahad, Badr Haboush, Hawas Khalil, Abdulrahman Mustafa, Ahmed Sayed Youssef, and Ibrahim Pro.
- Six members of the National Coordinating Body (NCB): Hassan Abdel Azim, Alice Mufraj, Ahmed al-Asrawi, Safwan Akash, Nashaat Taima, and Mohammad Hijazi
- Four members of the Cairo bloc: Firas al-Khalidi (the president of the Cairo Platform), Jamal Sulayman, Munir Darwish, and Qassem al-Khatib
- Four members of the Moscow bloc: Yusef Salman, Arub al-Masri, Mohannad Dlykan, and Sami Betinjane
- Sixteen independents: Khalid al-Mahamid, Yahya al-Aridi, Tarek al-Kurdi, Awad al-Ali, Khaled Shahabuddin, Basma Qaddamani, Hanadi Eboarab, Fadwa al-Elegy, Mei Rahbi, Sameer Moubayed, Farah al-Atassi, Sabiha Khalil, and a representative of the tribes.
There are then ten representatives of the armed opposition:
- Bashar al-Zubi: head of Jaysh al-Thawra, previously Liwa al-Yarmouk, part of the Southern Front
- Muhammad Khalid al-Dahni: head of March 18 Division, part of the Southern Front
- Ahmad al-Jibawi: commander within Jaysh al-Ababil, a component of the Southern Front
- Ayman al-Asami: a member of the Deraa Military Council, who often participates in conferences but appears to have little power or even group specificity
- Ahmed Haitham al-Awda: the leader of the Youth of Sunna, the FSA Southern Front affiliate in Busra al-Sham in Deraa Province, until he was deposed in August 2016, accused of being too authoritarian and corrupt, and placed under house arrest. Soon after, Youth of Sunna de facto split, with a faction staying with al-Awda, and several other factions later uniting under his rule.
- Ahmed Othman: head of Liwa al-Sultan Murad, a close ally of Turkey’s
- Talas al-Salama (Abu Faysal): leader of Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya, previously various Asala-linked, Jazira-based, FSA-branded factions
- Yasser Abdul Rahim: a commander within Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi, who was among the leaders of the unified rebel operations room in Aleppo city before the end
- Hassan Haj Ali: commander of the Free Idlib Army, and Liwa Suqur al-Jabal before the merger
- Mohammed Mansour: leader of Jaysh al-Nasr, formerly Suqur al-Ghab prior to the merger
The serious opposition—truly independent from, and advocating for the downfall of, the regime—consists of the SNC and the rebels, or about half of this forty-one-man delegation.
The NCB and Cairo factions are distinctly mild in their opposition to the Asad regime. The NCB, led by Hassan Abdel Azim, and comprising a lot of the old communist and pan-Arab opposition groups—plus the Kurdish PYD/PKK—is, at best, trying to play opposition within the rules set by the Asad regime, and at worst is a creature manipulated by the regime’s secret police.
The Cairo platform began in early 2015 as a spin-off of the NCB and other “internal opposition” or “pro-Damascus opposition” groups like the Building the Syrian State (BSS) movement, and some defectors from the SNC like Fayez Sara, Salah Darwish, and Qassem al-Khatib. It was formalized as Ghad al-Suri (Syria’s Tomorrow) in March 2016 with the support of the Egyptian government and the United Arab Emirates. At the time the Cairo Group was led by Ahmad al-Jarba, the former head of the SNC, and included al-Khatib and figures like Mohamed Bassam al-Malek, an Egypt-based oppositionist.
The “Moscow Platform” is an outright fabrication, a stalking horse for the Asad dictatorship, including figures such as Alaa Arafat, a member from the Popular Front for Change and Liberation, which has links with the NCB and until recently had formal connections to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), the Nazi-inflected irredentist movement whose militia fights alongside the Asad regime’s forces.
The armed opposition’s representatives include five from the Jordan- and Saudi-supported southern zone, just one from Turkey’s EUPHRATES SHIELD area, one from the east, one from the hopelessly tainted Harakat Nooradeen al-Zengi, and two from small, vetted northern FSA factions. As ever, coordination between the opposition’s backers is not all that it might have been.
The final communique from Riyad II said that the participants wanted “a transition period that leads the country to a democratic and pluralistic political system”, stressing that Asad must depart before that begins—a serious sticking point with the Russians, who have wanted to set up a situation in which Asad can “oversee the transition”, or in other words is eternally going and never actually gone.
Thanks to Ryan O’Farrel for helping me navigate the granularities of the opposition