Saudi Arabia has just announced that it will be hosting a conference on December 15 that aims at unifying the Syrian opposition. According to the Saudi Ambassador to the UN, “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is keen to gather the entire Syrian opposition and help them to (present) one voice and one unified position“. The conference is meant to unite the political actors with the rebel factions fighting on the ground.
While the initial news reports about the conference in the media don’t give much detail on who specifically will be attending, an article in the Saudi owned Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper dated 21 November 2015 said that, according to sources in the Syrian armed opposition, over 30 Syrian armed opposition factions will be participating in the conference. “Mohammad Allouch, the commander of Jaish al-Islam mentioned that of the more prominent factions who have been invited are the FSA, Jaish al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, Failaq Homs, Jaish al-Yarmouk, Al-Ferqa al-Saheliyya fi Jebal al-Akrad and Al-Jabha al-Shamiyya. He confirmed that Jabhat al-Nusra will not be among the participating factions in view that it has it’s own agenda. He pointed out that the principles of the Syrian armed opposition are in line with values and morals and clash with the terrorism of ISIS.”
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi who is known to mirror the views of the government in Riyadh, posted several tweets on his account. The first one says that “Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, both participating in the Riyadh conference , are more than mere armed factions but rather they are local administrators, political parties and have secret cells that operate inside regime territories”.
Another tweet said: “Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, FSA and all the other factions participating in Riyadh form 80% of the revolution and there can be no decision taken for the future of Syria without them“.
Finally, a third tweet said: “Russian attempts to designate Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam as terrorist organizations are targeting the revolution itself and it’s goals and unfortunately two Arab countries are supporting them on this“.
The second Vienna meeting’s final statement on November 14 contained a paragraph that dealt with the task of designating who, besides ISIS and Nusra, are terrorist groups:
“Regarding the fight against terrorism, and pursuant to clause 6 of the Vienna Communique, the ISSG reiterated that Da’esh, Nusra, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the UN Security Council, and further, as agreed by the participants and endorsed by the UN Security Council, must be defeated. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan agreed to help develop among intelligence and military community representatives a common understanding of groups and individuals for possible determination as terrorists, with a target of completion by the beginning of the political process under UN auspices“.
The communique also said that any ceasefire agreed upon will not apply to actions taken against the groups designated as terrorist:
“All members of the ISSG also pledged as individual countries and supporters of various belligerents to take all possible steps to require adherence to the ceasefire by these groups or individuals they support, supply or influence. The ceasefire would not apply to offensive or defensive actions against Da’esh or Nusra or any other group the ISSG agrees to deem terrorist“.
Saudi Arabia’s invitation of groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam to the Riyadh conference is an act of defiance meant to hijack this whole process. They want to create a de facto Syrian opposition that is selected only by them. Most of the “rebel” groups on the list of invitees to Riyadh have at one point bled into or fought side by side with Nusra and ISIS. In the very unlikely case that the Saudis manage to impose their own list on the talks, there is nothing to prevent thousands of the unknown rank and file in Nusra or ISIS to defect to the Saudi backed groups so they can be “legitimized”.
This is yet one more example of the Saudis flipping off the international community and shrugging off broad consensus to pursue their objective of seeding proxies with like minded extremist philosophies throughout the region.
Pro Tip: Anyone the Saudis put their weight behind should probably be on the terrorist list in Vienna. Riyadh has now made it easy for us – let’s strike them off.