During the first week of August, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir visited the offices of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) in Riyadh, the largest Syrian opposition faction, which was created by Saudi Arabia in December 2015. He asked its members to prepare for a broad conference of dissidents, scheduled for the first week of October, officially coined “Riyadh II.”
The aim of the meeting is to expand the HNC to include members from the Russia- and Egypt-backed opposition. This is a concession that Saudi Arabia had previously refused to grant, insisting that the only true representatives of the Syrian people were those being supported by Saudi Arabia.
Many of those opponents don’t see things eye-to-eye with Riyadh and have expressed willingness to reach a power-sharing formula with the regime, even if it means the survival of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Accepting to work with them is considered a notable concession from Russia, which previously wrote off the entire Saudi Arabia-backed team as “terrorists.”
The second objective of the Riyadh conference is to purge the Syrian opposition of any Qatar-backed figures, due to the stand-off between Riyadh and Doha. All those who stood by Qatar or stood at arms length from the Gulf dispute are expected to part the scene by October.
During the meeting Jubeir told his Syrian allies that the world has changed vis-à-vis Assad, especially after the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the official Russian intervention in Syria, quickly adding, however, that Saudi Arabia remains committed to its official stance that Assad has no political future as Syrian president.
It was reported that Riad Hijab, chairman of the HNC and a former Syrian prime minister who defected from Damascus in 2012, would be stepping down due to health problems. Earmarked to succeed him is Ahmad Jarba, a former president of the Syrian National Coalition who is from a prominent tribe that bestrides Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Until that happens, however, the HNC command, along with the Egypt and Russia-backed groups are to meet with UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura in Geneva on August 22, hoping to agree on a unified agenda ahead of UN-mandated talks in Switzerland, due to take place in the first week of September. Unifying the opposition has been a constant demand of both Moscow and the United States since 2012.
One proposal floating has been put forth by Qadri Jamil, a Moscow-based former Syrian deputy prime minister for economic affairs, who leads the Popular Front for Change and Liberation. A former communist and ranking economist, he quietly left office in October 2013, in what was seen as a soft defection. Since then, he has been based in Moscow, with open access to the Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry and is generally believed to be a favourite of Sergei Lavrov, who is accepted, with reservations, by Damascus.
The proposal calls for the creation of a five-man presidential council to lead the transition period, composed of five vice-presidents to Assad — for defence, security, foreign affairs,
governance and judicial affairs. The council would be appointed by Assad and include two members of the opposition and two from the regime, with one independent whose voice — theoretically — would tip the balance on any vote within the council.
The transition period, earlier statements by Jamil indicated, means taking the country from one-party rule to a multiparty system, from one constitution to another and from war to peace. He has said he doesn’t think that it means a transition from the present regime into a new government composed exclusively from the opposition.
The new body would technically rule with Assad, rather than independently of him, assuming full legislative, executive and judiciary powers during the transitional period, which would start the minute an agreement is reached by all sides, within the framework of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Each vice-president would appoint ten representatives, except for the vice-president for Government Affairs, who would get to name 30. In total, the 70 officials would lead the transition period and form an interim chamber to run state affairs.
The first stage would last six months and its legal reference would be the present constitution. That document keeps vast powers in the hands of the head of state, allowing him to run for two terms from the end of his present one, as of 2021. The council’s task would be to oversee implementation of the ceasefire agreements, the return of refugees to their towns and villages and uniting efforts of all players in the Syrian battlefield against ISIS and the group formerly known as al-Nusra Front, which was the al- Qaeda branch in Syria.
The second phase would last 17 months, during which the assembly would oversee parliamentary and presidential elections, based on whatever constitution is agreed upon in transition period. The documents make no mention of Assad and say nothing regarding whether he would be allowed to run for a new term when the transition period ends, explaining why the HNC and Saudi Arabia are highly reserved about the Jamil proposal, which is expected to be officially debated at the Geneva talks in September.
is a Syrian historian and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015). He is a former Carnegie scholar and founding chairman of the Damascus History Foundation.