Path to progress? Syrian rebels form bloc for peace talks

Syrian opposition groups came together this week in Saudi Arabia, but the larger question remains: Can the various factions find common ground?

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/File
In this 2012 file photo, Hassan Abdul-Azim, head of the Syrian opposition National Coordination Body, speaks at a news conference in Moscow, Russia.

Opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met in Saudi Arabia for talks to discuss ways to end Syria’s four-year-long civil war.

The Saudi-led talks were what US Secretary of State John Kerry called “an important step forward” and followed a temporary truce between rebels and government forces in the Syrian city of Homs.

“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 of rebels said in a statement before the talks. “Participants have insisted that Bashar al-Assad and his aides quit power with the start of the transition period.” 

The talks are unprecedented: it is the first time over 100 representatives from opposition groups have come together under one roof to work towards peace from a war that has seen over 250,000 people killed and left millions displaced.

The groups were varied in ideology and support, and included representatives from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, two Saudi-backed Sunni factions, and at least 25 representatives from the main opposition parties along with smaller opposition groups. Excluded from the group were the Kurds, who have been closely backed by the United States to fight Islamic State.

“This is the widest participation for the opposition, inside and outside of Syria, and we have the participation of the armed groups,” Hadi al-Bahra, a member of the exiled Syrian National Coalition told The New York Times. 

The last time talks were held between opposition leaders from Syria was in Geneva over one year ago and ended in a deadlock after thirty minutes, causing UN-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi to apologize to the Syrian people.

While the talks in Saudi Arabia have lasted longer, the larger question – of whether the varying groups can meet on common ground – remains unclear. Already, more than 100 leaders have formed an array of bloc groups and have created a high commission to oversee negotiations with the Assad government, independent of the Saudi government.   

Most hotly contested among participants have been issues over whether certain politicians should be allowed to stay, and distrust among Islamists and seculars.

“There were many false accusations against us, but most of our people have been in prison,” Khalaf al-Dawood, a member of the National Coordination Body told the Times. 

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