Saudis obstruct the peace talks

An important piece notes that the UN has accused Saudi Arabia of obscruting Syrian peace talks, “In a barely veiled swipe at one of the Middle East’s leading powers, the United Nations’ special envoy for Syria accused Saudi Arabia of undermining his efforts to bring a broad slate of Syrian opposition groups to upcoming peace talks designed to end Syria’s brutal civil war. In his confidential Jan. 18 briefing to the U.N. Security Council, which was obtained exclusively by Foreign Policy, Staffan de Mistura said Riyadh is complicating his efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict by trying to tightly control which opposition groups will be allowed to participate in the negotiations. His comments came shortly after a slate of Saudi-backed Syrian opposition groups, organized under the banner of the Riyadh-based High Negotiations Committee (HNC), rebuffed his personal appeals to allow other groups to take part in the talks. 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, Riyadh is the main international sponsor of the HNC. The group, however, is backed by France, Turkey, and Qatar”.

The report goes on to note that “The remarks also underscore de Mistura’s struggles to assert his authority as Washington and other world powers remain incapable of finding a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis. In his remarks to the Security Council, the diplomat appealed to the United States, Russia, and other key powers to back his troubled mediation efforts, saying he will not invite specific opposition groups to upcoming peace talks in Geneva unless the main outside players in the Syrian conflict all sign off on the list. That was seen as a clear rebuke to Riyadh”.

In some ways this is Saudi Arabia flexing its muscles. Its relations with the Obama administration have never been lower and by not allowing the talks to progress then there is an argument to be made that this is the easiest way of letting Obama know what they think of him. Related to this is the possibility that Obama has little interest in the talks going anywhere, which seems to be his consistent Syrian “strategy” as his last year in office dawns.

The piece adds that “Security Council members privately voiced sympathy for de Mistura’s predicament, but said it is unlikely that they will issue a public statement in support of his authority. “He has an impossible mandate,” said one council member. “He is not fully empowered.” Seeking to keep the talks on board, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to travel to Riyadh on Saturday to discuss the composition of the Syrian opposition. For months, the United States has argued in favour of an inclusive “big-tent” approach to political talks that would include all the most influential Syrian parties, with the exception of designated terrorist organizations like the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s main affiliate in Syria. But State Department spokesman John Kirby signaled that the United States is looking to the Riyadh group to lead the negotiations. “As we said after Riyadh, the opposition will be represented at that meeting by delegates chosen from the High Negotiating Committee and only from the High Negotiating Committee,” Kirby said”.

Riad Hijab, a former Syrian prime minister who serves as the HNC’s coordinator, announced the appointment of Asad al-Zoubi, a Syrian 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.

Hijab warned that his group may not attend the U.N.-brokered talks if the slate of opposition groups is expanded. In a statement issued Wednesday from Riyadh, Hijab dismissed the need for a broader spectrum of Syrian opposition figures, saying his group “incorporated a diverse spectrum of Syrian opposition” figures and would not accept any challenges to its credibility.

Hijab also noted that several members of the opposition coalition favor suspending the political talks until there is a halt to the bombardment of civilians, the lifting of sieges on the civilian population, and the release of detainees from prison. “Dates are not sacred; we will not go to any negotiations while our people suffer from shelling, starvation, and siege,” he said.

Both Arab and European diplomats expressed frustration Wednesday that disagreements over the composition of the negotiating delegation have distracted world powers from focusing on other key challenges of the thorny and bloody Syrian crisis, including establishing a cease-fire and finding ways of reducing the conflict’s staggering human toll.

“Everyone is focused on the composition of the delegation,” said one Arab diplomat, and the other issues “are taking a back seat, unfortunately.”

The article goes on to note that “During Monday’s closed-door meeting, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and her counterparts from Britain, France, and Russia reaffirmed de Mistura’s authority to pick the final list of invitees, according to three council diplomats. The controversy over the invitation was widely reported early this week, but FP has exclusively obtained de Mistura’s speaking notes, which provide in his own words a more detailed account of his dispute with the Saudis and his broader frustrations over the complicated effort to cobble together a representative slate of opposition groups. 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.”

Interestingly the piece adds “The Saudis are not the only ones who have drawn red lines on participation in the political talks. Syria, Russia, and Iran 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. Turkey has threatened to pull out of the political talks if Kurdish groups, including the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its political affiliate, the Democratic Union Party, are allowed to participate. Other Arab governments believe that excluding the Kurdish groups, which have waged some of the most successful military campaigns against the Islamic State in Syria, is absurd. Council diplomats and other observers say that de Mistura’s remarks were aimed at prodding the United States to apply pressure on the Saudis to back down and allow a larger slate of opposition figures to participate in talks. “He needs Russia and the U.S. to tell their guys to line up and behave, to tell their guys it’s not up to them,” said one U.N.-based observer who has tracked de Mistura’s mediation effort”.

The report concludes that “The U.N. envoy’s troubles stem from the fact that responsibility for overseeing the political process is divided between the U.N. and the International Syria Support Group, a 17-nation group of powers that the Security Council considers the “central platform to facilitate the United Nations’ efforts” to achieve a lasting political settlement in Syria. Until now, that formulation has given a virtual veto to any support group member to block parties. For instance, Turkey has blocked the representation of the YPG and the Democratic Union Party on the grounds that they are allied with a Turkish terrorist group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Russia, meanwhile, has pressed for the exclusion of Islamist groups, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, from political talks. Frustrated by the lack of agreement, de Mistura told the Security Council behind closed doors that he wouldn’t issue invitations until the key powers reached agreement on who would be in and who would be out”.



One Response to “Saudis obstruct the peace talks”

  1. Order and Tradition Says:

    […] uncertainty about whether they would come and the talks would happen. The 17-strong team from the Saudi-backed Higher Negotiation Committee (HNC), including political and militant opponents of Assad in the country’s 5-year-old civil war, […]

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