Syrian opposition forces begin peace talks. Where will they lead?

After years of fighting, several factions met this week in Saudi Arabia to outline potential negotiations with Syrian President Assad.

Retuers/Ammar Abdullah
Civilians who left the Homs district of Waer under a local truce, arrive in buses at Idlib, Syria this week. Busloads of Syrians including rebel fighters left the last insurgent-held area of Homs on Wednesday under a rare local truce in Syria's nearly five-year conflict.

Syrian opposition groups on Thursday agreed to discourse with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a potentially momentous step toward peace during a years-long civil war that has devastated the region.

A group of Syrian opposition members, including about two dozen politicians and rebels, met in the Saudi Arabian city of Riyadh for two days this week to hash out an outline toward peace.

The United Nations in a statement said the factions are “ready to negotiate with representatives of the Syrian regime,” though with the stipulation that Assad would be excluded from a shift to any potential new government, the AFP said.

Several of the opposition’s main factions attended the conference, including the Western-backed National Coalition, one of the main opposition groups. One group withdrew from talks, having complained that figures close to the Assad government were being given too prominent a role, the BBC said.

Representatives of the Free Syrian Army, which is backed by the West, and two Sunni factions supported by the Saudi government also joined the talks, according to The Washington Post.

National Coalition member Monzer Akbik told Al-Jazeera the meeting was comprised of 25 representatives in total from the opposition’s two main factions and a variety of smaller opposition groups. Reuters reported that another separate team of 15 negotiators would be selected at a later time.

"These are representatives of all the opposition factions, political and military, and they are going to be the decision makers in terms of the political settlement," he said.

The terms for potential talks were first laid out last month in Vienna during a conference among 17 countries that included the US, Russia, and Middle Eastern countries, who are pushing both sides toward a political solution.

The groups agreed to “democratic mechanism through a pluralistic regime that represents all sectors of the Syrian people” including women, Reuters reported.

On Thursday, opposition groups said the Syrian military should stop executions and indiscriminate bombing, release captured opposition members, and pull back from contested areas to allow humanitarian assistance, the AFP reports.

"The aim of the political settlement is to create a state based on the principle of citizenship without Bashar al-Assad or figures of his regime having a place in it or any future political arrangements," the group said. "Participants have insisted that Bashar al-Assad and his aides quit power with the start of the transition period.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry said earlier on Thursday that the groups made progress toward peace talks, though “we have some tough issues to get over.”

“I think everybody is moving in the direction that they want to rapidly get to a political process and get it under way under UN auspices,” he told the Post.

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