Baghdad, Iraq – Syria peace talks have become a parallel saga to the suffering and violence that continues in the country, where 6.3 million people remain internally displaced, and more than 470,000 have lost their lives in more than seven years of fighting.
The issues surrounding negotiations are complex and multi-layered, with a major sticking point that opponents of President Bashar al-Assad – the Saudi-backed High Negotiation Committee (HNC), and the Cairo and Moscow platforms – have failed to form a united front to challenge his government.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy for Syria, has previously sought to unite the opposition.
“No one is asking the opposition to suddenly stop being the opposition – but we are urging the opposition to realise that it is at its most credible and effective when it stands together, and shows readiness to negotiate, which means to give and take,” he said in a briefing to the UN Security Council in September.
A new meeting in Riyadh on Wednesday hopes to bring them together, but the odds of success are not high.
In Saudi Arabia’s capital, opposition representatives plan to meet in a bid to form some sort of united front in advance of the eighth round of Geneva negotiations, scheduled to begin six days later. At a previous meeting in August, the three groups were unable to agree on speaking with one voice. But the talks have already hit stumbling blocks.
HNC leader and former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab resigned from his position on Monday, announcing his decision in a statement posted on social media.
“After nearly two years of tireless work … I find myself obliged to announce my resignation from the High Negotiations Committee, wishing it more success, and peace, safety and stability to my beloved country, Syria,” he wrote.
He did not explain the reasons behind his motivation, but analysts believe he opposed attempts to bring the Moscow and Cairo platforms together with the HNC.
Syria expert Charles Lister said the resignation was “inevitable”, given Hijab’s opposition to uniting the fronts. “[This is a] big challenge for Saudi,” Lister added on Twitter.
Yahya al-Aridi, an HNC spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that seven other committee members had resigned.
He confirmed that these individuals had not been invited to the Riyadh meeting but would not confirm whether the two factors were linked.
The role of Assad in Syria’s transition has been the main point of contention between the opposition blocs.
The Moscow group refuses to back any demand for Assad’s resignation, and opposes his exclusion from governing Syria during a transitional period. It believes that any immediate discussion of Assad’s fate is a barrier to ending the conflict, while the HNC will not accept any route forward that includes Assad remaining in power.
Yahya al-Aridi said that individuals who shared stances on the “demands, needs and requirements of the Syrian people” would be at the Riyadh talks, known as Riyadh 2.
He confirmed that 10 members of the Cairo platform and seven from Moscow had been invited, but was cynical about Moscow’s desires, in particular, to engage in the opposition. “Moscow has all along tried hard to undermine the opposition by saying it is fragmented,” he told Al Jazeera.
A Moscow group representative would not confirm attendance at the intra-opposition meeting in Riyadh. “Up until now, we have not decided whether or not we will attend,” Mohannad Dlykan told Al Jazeera.
“Preparatory committee meetings are continuing, and when we have finished, we will announce our final position on whether or not we will attend the expanded opposition meeting,” he added.
Aridi believed that a unified opposition delegation would result from Riyadh 2, and dismissed the idea that the talks were being held with the aim of shaping an opposition that kowtowed to Saudi desires over Syria.
“They may belong to the Cairo or Moscow platforms, but those […] invited will be those who want to see the same outcomes for the Syrian people,” he added.
The Cairo group was not available to confirm its attendance in Riyadh.
Whether or not the opposition can finally unite, endless rounds of peace talks have so far failed to produce a countrywide ceasefire or agree on a road to political transition. With that, the Assad government is planning how it consolidates rule over Syria.
The government’s next steps are impossible to predict precisely. It may raise military pressure in several places, without committing major resources or undertaking major offensives, according to Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center think-tank in Beirut.
Assad forces may “probe Kurdish defence and resolve in eastern (non-Kurdish) areas – they may launch limited attacks or push patrols forward,” Sayigh told Al Jazeera. The aim would be to see if the US pushes back, or if such action prompts a different response in discussions that are likely ongoing between Kurds and the government.
It is unlikely to use force to retake Raqqa, which was liberated from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) rule by the US-backed, Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on October 20.
The SDF is largely composed of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), widely believed to be affiliated to the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The YPG have had an ambiguous relationship with the government, refusing to fight alongside Syrian opposition groups against it. That history indicates how Damascus might seek to build up influence in the Kurdish “Rojava” area of northern Syria, without using military force.
“The regime has perfected the art of salami-slicing its way back into control, when it is given an opening into zones that slipped from its control,” said Kyle Orton, a research fellow at the London-based Henry Jackson Society think-tank.
“So a deal that allows some variant of the current situation – Rojava reliant on regime largesse for its public services, Assad in control of key security nodes, and the YPG-PKK allowed wide latitude in the political and security domains in the Kurdish areas – is eminently imaginable.”
‘Russia is key’
Observers are unconvinced that many of the multiple peace negotiation processes will achieve their stated aims. But Russian designs will be key.
“My view is that there will not be any formal political transition agreement that involves formal power sharing, and is produced through international diplomacy,” said Yezid Sayigh.
“The venue is not important; the key issue is whether or not Russia can design a deal that satisfies the regime, the Kurds, and Turkey, while pitching it as an internal, Syrian-Syrian peace settlement,” he said.
Alongside Russia, Iran has been key to Assad’s survival so far.
Both countries may be among the main winners when it comes to reconstruction deals in Syria. In August, Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis said the majority of investments in Syria “will be given to the businessmen from the friendly and brotherly countries, which stood by Syria in its war against terrorism”.
But that does not give Moscow and Tehran hegemony over the country’s future.
“Russia and Iran are powerful and the regime needs them,” Sayigh told Al Jazeera. “But they cannot force it to accept political terms it does not want. The regime is the key player in developing a strategy for attracting money. I see no basis for presenting this as Russian or Iranian ‘control’.”
Control, perhaps not, but influence, yes, with their own priorities in mind.
Russia will continue to steer events to secure its military outposts – namely, a naval base on the Mediterranean at Tartous, while Iran will “invest what is necessary to stand up a security architecture in its own revolutionary image in Syria”, according to Orton.
“There does not seem to be much appetite in Tehran for ‘reconstruction’ beyond what is necessary to retain its foothold in the Levant,” he added.
While Assad and allies continue to claim something approaching victory in Syria, multiple, serious issues remain widely unresolved for millions of ordinary citizens.
More than 800,000 people currently live under siege, mostly due to blockades imposed by the government and its allies.
The Syria Institute, which co-produces the quarterly Siege Watch report, accuses the government of using “surrender or die” tactics to force besieged communities to capitulate. It is particularly concerned about the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus, the largest remaining besieged enclave in the country.
Last week it raised the alert on the whole of Eastern Ghouta to its highest level, warning that the besieged enclave was “on the brink of a humanitarian disaster, unless urgent action is taken to end the attacks and lift the siege”.
ALERT: Siege Watch is raising our siege designation for all of Eastern #Ghouta to Tier 1 – the highest intensity siege. Residents are at high risk of harm
due to malnutrition, lack of access medical care & violent attack. The situation is critical. https://t.co/p9g25vl0dD pic.twitter.com/Xpz5xjn6kf
— Siege Watch (@SiegeWatch) November 16, 2017
The issue of detainees is largely forgotten at peace talks, yet its resolution is a crucial part of Syria’s future, according to rights groups.
More than 75,000 people have disappeared in Syrian prisons, where authorities are accused of torture, rape and execution.
“We want the issue of detainees and disappearances to be firmly on the agenda at Geneva,” said Kristyan Benedict, campaigns manager at Amnesty International UK, which is pushing for independent monitors to be given access to places of detention in Syria.
“De Mistura references it every now and then, but it is not really central to the thinking at Geneva and we want to see that on there,” he told Al Jazeera.
“It is a major, major crisis and it is not good enough that there really hasn’t actually been a huge amount of movement on it.”