Syrian opposition groups and rebel factions gathered in the Saudi capital of Riyadh (9-10 Dec.) to discuss their positions ahead of proposed peace negotiations with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Who are the ‘moderates’ in Syria?
The term moderate, as applied to almost any participant in the Syrian conflict, is likely to be comparative. Forces such as the Islamic State In the Levant (ISIL), aka Islamic State, aka Daesh, in contrast are commonly referred to as radical or extremist.
Also earning condemnation for violating conventions, however, including charges of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, are the forces answering to Assad.
Neither ISIL nor Assad nor any other of the fighting forces has escaped scrutiny for acts condemned at international levels.
In the search for solutions to the conflict, and interlocutors on the ground, the international community faces a mountain of political, humanitarian, militarily strategic or other considerations for the future rebuilding of a viable Syria.
Arab media report that all the armed groups operating in Syria were invited to Riyadh, except ISIL and the Nusra Front, which is the Syrian branch of al Qaeda.
Among the prominent participants in Riyadh: the Syrian National Coalition; the Syria-based National Coordination Body; the Free Syrian Army; Jaysh al-Islam; the Islamist insurgent group Ahrar al-Sham, founded by militants with al Qaeda links.
Kurdish opposition faction YPG, excluded from Riyadh, is a member of US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey opposes official recognition of the YPG in the context of Kurdish ambitions for statehood.
The Syrian National Coalition, or National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, was founded in Qatar, November 2012. Its main aims are the removal of Assad, his government and security apparatus.
The countries or blocs which recognise the Syrian National Coalition as “the legitimate representative” of the Syrian people include: the Arab League (but not Algeria, Iraq or Lebanon), Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Oman, the United States, France, Britain, Turkey and the European Union.
Under its current president Khaled Khodja, the Coalition’s components differ widely, whether by political leaning, ethnicity or religion. It has secularists, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Arab nationalists, Kurds, Christians and even Shia Islamic Alawites (Assad is an Alawite).
In spite of its relations with various military factions, the National Coalition controls no Syrian territory.
The Egyptian English-language monthly magazine Egypt Today reported that the majority of delegates from armed groups operating in Syria present at the Riyadh talks were Islamist.
Jaysh al-Islam, formerly Liwa al-Islam (Brigade of Islam), is a coalition of Islamists and Salafists supported by Saudi Arabia. Founded in Syria in 2011, Jaysh al-Islam controls strategic parts of the outskirts of Damascus. This coalition condemned the Nov. 13th terrorist attacks in Paris. Its commander is Zahran Alloush.
Free Syrian Army
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was founded in 2011, by officers and soldiers who had deserted from the Syrian Armed Forces—its aim: to end the Assad regime. It was the first military formation of the civil war but, as a ‘loose umbrella organisation’, was swiftly overtaken in strength and relevance by radical Islamist rival forces.
Some of its factions joined the rebel faction Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), largely directed by the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front in Idlib province (north).
However, the Free Syrian Army does control limited areas in northern Syria, at the border with Turkey, as well as parts in the south, at the border with Jordan.
Formal leader: Commander-in-Chief Colonel Riad al-Asaad. Military leader: Brigadier General Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir.
Some FSA delegates refused to attend the Riyadh talks since the group Ahrar al-Sham was invited, which the no-shows denounced as a terrorist group.
Ahrar al-Sham, a powerful Islamist insurgent group formed before the Syrian Revolution started in 2011, its founders with links to al Qaeda. It insists that Assad “face justice” and that Syria’s “institutions of oppression” be dismantled. Leader: Hassan Aboud.
Ahrar said it would stand by demands including “the complete cleansing of the Russian-Iranian occupation of Syrian land, and the sectarian militias which support it”.
According to Ahrar, some of those invited to the talks in Riyadh were “closer to representing the regime than the people and the revolution”, and the rebel representation did not fairly reflect their presence on the ground.
Opposition figures said Saudi Arabia initially invited about 65 participants, 15 of them from rebel and insurgent groups.
Later reports put the number at around 100.
The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, PYD) a political party established in 2003 by Kurdish activists in northern Syria, was not invited to Riyadh.
Neither were the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, YPG), the armed branch of the Kurdish government of Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava).
Sunni and Shi’ite
Mainly Sunni Muslim groups are fighting against Syria’s army, supported by Shi’ite fighters from Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah.
Saudi Arabia projects itself as a leader of the Middle East’s Sunni Muslims.
Regional power rival Iran is Shi’ite.