This story is over 5 years old.


Syrian Rebels Took One Very Small Step Closer to Negotiating an End to the War

The Syrian opposition came together for a conference in Saudi Arabia this week — but the pullout of a key player means real peace talks aren't happening just yet.
Photo by Sedat Suna/EPA

The Syrian opposition came together in Riyadh this week for a conference sponsored by the Saudi government — and by the time it ended Thursday, it was the most successful attempt to date to unify Syria's fractious opposition and ultimately produce a negotiated solution to the Syrian civil war. But there was a potentially crippling problem: One of the biggest rebel groups in Syria, the Salafist brigade Ahrar al-Sham, withdrew from the proceedings just as they were concluding, leaving the negotiators without a key player.


Other brigades endorsed the conference platform, and armed rebels will hold 11 of 34 seats in a new body to oversee negotiations with the regime of Bashar al-Assad. That's less than their weight on the ground, yet enough to give them a real stake in talks. But the defection by Ahrar al-Sham, which has apparently sided with jihadist irreconcilables who want nothing to do with a negotiated solution, means the prospect of a settlement may be slightly closer but is still remote.

The Riyadh conference was hastily arranged after the International Syria Support Group — including the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar — issued a joint communique from Vienna last month that called for negotiations between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime.

Related: Russia Claims It's Working With Free Syrian Army Alongside Assad's Troops

The problem with the previous round of negotiations, held last year in Geneva, was that delegates from the political opposition in exile had little clout with the people actually doing the fighting in Syria. So, for this latest conference, the Saudi government invited a broad spectrum of political opposition blocs and rebel brigade representatives. The idea was to draft a negotiating platform and nominate a joint delegation that could, this time, credibly claim to marshal forces on the ground.

Political attendees included members from not just the National Coalition — the Syrian opposition's main representative body — but also smaller groups which the regime tolerates and have been critical of armed revolution. Many rebels view them with suspicion, if not as outright agents of regime intelligence.


Syrian men react in a field hospital following airstrikes by forces loyal to the Syrian government in the rebel-held area of Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus, December 5, 2015. (Photo by Mohammed Badra/EPA)

Yet, that such a diverse assortment ultimately agreed on a joint political platform and a body that will supervise negotiations seems like something of a small miracle. And for the first time, the new opposition negotiating body includes significant representation for rebel brigades, including Damascus-area powerhouse Jeish al-Islam.

"There's the statement, which is good," said Ward Furati, a political officer in Aleppo brigade Tajammu' Fastaqim Kama Umirt, who spoke from the southern Aleppo countryside. "But the most important thing right now is the way the political exclusion of the revolutionary brigades has been lifted and how their role has been recognized."

The final draft of the conference's closing communique called for a unified, pluralistic Syria. Participants committed to negotiations with the regime, with some preconditions. They also endorsed a future ceasefire and political settlement to the conflict, with the key premise that Assad and his closest associates leave power before any transition begins.

"From a revolutionary perspective, the outcome of the conference was less than we might have hoped. But in terms of sheer necessity, it was acceptable," said Hassan al-Dugheim, a cleric from Idlib and influential revolutionary figure, who had been in contact with conference participants and spoke from Turkey.

'From a revolutionary perspective, the outcome of the conference was less than we might have hoped. But in terms of sheer necessity, it was acceptable.'


Ahrar al-Sham, however, issued a statement on Thursday formally withdrawing from the conference over the participation of some political opposition members "linked to the regime" and the underrepresentation of armed brigades, as well as the conference's failure to put emphasis on the Syrian people's "Muslim identity." But the opposition was thrown into confusion when the Ahrar political official at the conference, reportedly unaware that the statement had been issued, actually signed the final communique. The rejection had come from Ahrar al-Sham's leadership inside Syria.

Pressure from the group's regional backers, Qatar and Turkey, may convince the group to reconcile itself to the Riyadh outcomes. Until then, however the group's official rejection of the agreement still stands.

And the group seems to have other, unstated problems with the conference platform. The conference's final communique expressed "commitment to a democratic mechanism through a pluralistic system" and "rejection of any presence for foreign fighters" — including pro-regime foreign fighters — who should be expelled from Syria.

Watch the VICE News documentary Ghosts of Aleppo:

Ahrar al-Sham doesn't want either of those things. It has previously expressed openness to some electoral mechanisms (within an Islamic system) but has rejected "democracy" per se. Some of Ahrar's battlefield allies are heavily staffed with foreigners, and Ahrar itself has counted foreign fighters in its ranks; Syrian Ahrar fighters arguably have more in common with them than with many of the Syrian exile politicians in Riyadh. "By God, we won't hand over the muhajireen (foreign fighters) or abandon them. We'll never sell out those who sold their lives to come to our aid," senior Ahrar figure and reputed hardliner Khaled Abu Anas wrote on Twitter.


Ahrar's opposition matters because of its sheer weight on the ground. Ahrar and Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah form the twin core of Jeish al-Fateh, the Islamist-jihadist alliance that pushed the regime out of Idlib province earlier this year and is the strongest opposition force in northern Syria. Ahrar al-Sham has been competing for political influence with Nusrah and other jihadist factions in the north, and its political outreach has rankled some jihadists who rejected the Riyadh conference. Ahrar's endorsement of the Riyadh communique could have produced a more complete break with its jihadist allies, or even within Ahrar itself. Ahrar al-Sham's spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

Jihadist commanders and leading radical ideologues, to whom hardline armed groups look for guidance, blasted the conference.

"[The conference's closing statement] contains kufr (unbelief)," Palestinian-Jordanian jihadist ideologue Abu Qatadah al-Filistini tweeted — an accusation tantamount to a death sentence for signatories. Jabhat al-Nusrah's top Islamic law official Sami al-Oreidi tweeted, "I've found no more precise description for the Riyadh Conference than the Abu Raghal Conference." (Abu Raghal is a legendary Arab traitor from the pre-Islamic era whose name has lived on as a slur.)

Related: While the World Focuses on the Islamic State, Assad Keeps Bombing Doctors and Civilians

This persistent division among Syria's opposition and jihadist brigades — just one aspect of how Syria has been split between competing factions — is probably the biggest weakness of this new international push for a negotiated solution. Set aside for a moment the premise that the Assad regime will negotiate its own decapitation in good faith, which it won't. Without Ahrar al-Sham, the people taking part in those negotiations represent a smaller fraction — if a still substantial one — of the forces fighting over Syria. This is to say nothing of the Islamic State and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party or the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which have carved up much of Syria's east and weren't at the conference, either.

For Syria negotiations to be meaningful, each side has to be able to credibly make concessions — to turn fighting on and off, more or less. The only ones who can promise that, and thus decide whether a negotiated settlement lives or dies, are the people with guns. Without Ahrar al-Sham, there may not be enough of them at the table.

Follow VICE News on Twitter: @vicenews