Saudi Arabia is sidelining the diplomat charged with ending the brutal Syrian civil war — and complicating the push toward a deal.
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 truth is that the parties remain locked in fixed positions and a ‘zero-sum’ game,” de Mistura told the 15-nation council in a closed-door briefing Monday. “Parties disagree not only on substance, but what concerns me is that they also question that the UN could or should exercise its discretion in ‘finalizing’ the opposition list.”
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.
“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, who told CNN on Wednesday that the talks, originally scheduled for Jan. 25, might be delayed. “The Secretary General and I have no chance in succeeding, or even making a dent, if others do not do their parts too.”
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 favor 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 Tuesday.
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.”
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.
“We already know it — they don’t want to sit in one room. They don’t recognize each other,” he told the council. “But, we need to include all. And who knows — one day down the line the Syrians themselves through elections might be able to tell us who represents them.”
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.
Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday in Zurich, where they “discussed plans for the U.N.-led negotiations between the Syrian parties on January 25 and the importance of maintaining progress toward a diplomatic solution to the crisis,” according to State Department spokesman John Kirby. He said Kerry pressed Russia to “use its influence with the Assad regime to ensure immediate, unimpeded, and sustained humanitarian access to all Syrians in need, especially those in besieged areas such as Madaya.”
During a meeting in Austria last October, the United States, Russia, and other big powers assigned the U.N. the task of bringing the Syrian government and opposition together for talks on a political transition. But Saudi Arabia — which attended the meeting at the luxury Hotel Bristol in Vienna — has sought to control the process of selecting acceptable opposition candidates.
In December, the Saudi kingdom assembled in Riyadh a coalition of its favored opposition figures, including representatives of Syrian armed Islamist groups Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam.
De Mistura wasn’t even invited.
“The Syrian opposition is the party which decides who represents it in the talks, and the higher committee that emerged from the Riyadh conference is the concerned party and they are the ones who decide who represents them in the talks,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Tuesday in Riyadh, according to Reuters. “No other party is allowed to impose on the Syrian opposition who represents them in the talks with Bashar al-Assad.”
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.
“I have … concluded that at this stage today I cannot proceed further with issuing invitations unless the countries spearheading the [Syrian political] process can come to an understanding first on the issue of who should be invited,” he told the council. “After two Geneva conferences failed to end the war and with the death toll nearing 300,000, the Syrian people need a clear signal that this time we all mean business.”
De Mistura appealed to the U.N.’s five permanent members — Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States — to “exert pressure” on Syria’s combatants to end government and opposition sieges in 14 areas, including the villages of Madaya, Mouadamiya, Foua, and Kefraya. He said the Syrian government has ignored 80 out of 113 U.N. requests for access to besieged areas in the past year.
Sustained access to besieged areas is so “crucial to the people of Syria that this time around peace talks will make a difference to their lives,” de Mistura said.
“What I am asking for is acts of goodwill which demonstrate seriousness about the process and give a meaning to a peace conference,” he said.
FP senior staff reporter John Hudson contributed to this report.
Photo credit: Kevin Lamarque/AFP/Getty Images