According to UN special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, Saudi Arabia is attempting to complicate his efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the war in Syria. In a confidential briefing to the United Nations Security Council on the 18th of January, he accused Riyadh of trying to control which rebel groups are allowed to participate in the official Syrian opposition in coming peace negotiations on Syria.
De Mistura complained to the council that the Saudi-backed opposition coalition and its sponsors “insist on the primacy and exclusivity of their role as ‘THE’ opposition delegation.” While de Mistura did not name Saudi Arabia specifically, Riyadh remains the main international sponsor of the HNC. In December, the Saudi kingdom assembled the HNC coalition of its favored opposition figures, including spokesmen of Islamist militias such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam.
“I would expect all sides to recognize my mandated responsibility to finalize a list of invitees to the process, to include all those I deem appropriate,” said de Mistura. “The Secretary General and I have no chance in succeeding, or even making a dent, if others do not do their parts too.” He added that the peace talks, which are scheduled for the 25th of January, could well be delayed.
Seeking to have peace talks go ahead, US Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to travel to Saudi Arabia in two days as to discuss the composition of the Syrian opposition. However, State Department spokesman John Kirby signaled that the United States is looking to have the Riyadh HNC group to lead negotiations. “As we said after Riyadh (red. Riyadh conference), the opposition will be represented at that meeting by delegates chosen from the High Negotiating Committee and only from the High Negotiating Committee”.
Riad Hijab, a former Prime Minister of the Syrian government (who since defected) now serves as the HNC’s coordinator and recently announced the appointment of Asad al-Zoubi, also a Syrian Arab Army defector, as head of the negotiating team. Hijab also named Mohammed Alloush, a representative of the Saudi-backed Islamist militia Jaish al-Islam, as the group’s chief negotiator.
De Mistura said he recognizes that many of the key parties participating in political talks are unlikely to accept each other’s legitimacy or sit together in face-to-face peace talks. “We already know it — they don’t want to sit in one room. They don’t recognize each other,” he told the council.
The Saudis are not the only ones who have drawn red lines on participation in the political talks. Syria, Russia, Iran, and Egypt consider some key participants in the Saudi-sponsored opposition, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, to be terrorist organizations that should be excluded from the talks. Furthermore, Turkey has threatened to pull out of the political talks if the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) are allowed to participate.
Frustrated by the lack of progress, Staffan de Mistura added: “What I am asking for is acts of goodwill which demonstrate seriousness about the process and give a meaning to a peace conference,”. While diplomatic talks are unlikely to find a solution anytime soon, the death toll in Syria nears 300.000 while almost 5 years of war seem to continue undetered.