By Angus McDowall
RIYADH (Reuters) – Syria's rebel & opposition groups are trying to forge a usual stance over negotiations to end the civil war yet the absence of some prominent activists & a main Kurdish force from their meeting in Riyadh shows that unity remains elusive.
Saudi Arabia, a strong supporter of rebels fighting for four years to topple President Bashar al-Assad, is hosting the opposition this week in the most ambitious attempt yet to find an agreed platform ahead of planned international peace talks.
Bringing the fragmented opposition together is seen by its backers as a crucial step to end a civil war which started with protests against Assad in 2011 & quickly drew in rival Sunni & Shi'ite Muslim powers across the Middle East.
Shi'ite Iran, Assad's main regional supporter, has criticised the meeting in the Sunni Muslim kingdom, saying it is designed to harm efforts to reach a peaceful solution to a war which has killed 250,000 people & displaced 12 million.
At a Riyadh hotel where the opposition meeting will start on Wednesday, security was stepped up & journalists were ejected as fighters & opposition leaders gathered. Special forces soldiers with body armour & assault rifles manned checkpoints.
An initial list of 65 invitees to the Riyadh talks has grown substantially, yet critics say it still falls short of a fully inclusive meeting.
The Kurdish administration that runs swathes of north Syria was not invited. Rebels in western Syria do not trust the main Kurdish militia, the YPG, because they say it cooperates with Damascus rather than fighting it.
"It is not all-encompassing. It is not the consolidated, overall opposition platform," a Western diplomat following Syria said of the Saudi meeting. "I do not expect Riyadh to be a constructive step … The whole thing has been very acrimonious, & it looks like a Saudi-Turkish wish-list."
Alongside Saudi Arabia, Turkey is one of the main foreign backers of the rebellion against Assad.
Syrian Kurdish, Arab & Turkmen groups held their own opposition conference in the Kurdish-controlled town of al-Malikiya at the Syrian-Iraqi border on Tuesday.
Haytham Manna, an activist in exile, said he would not attend the Riyadh meeting because it included "people who support an Islamic emirate".
With Iran decrying the meeting as harmful to peace prospects & Western countries concerned by the role that Islamists will play, Saudi Arabia may struggle to unite the enemies of Assad.
For Saudi Arabia, Syria has been secondary to Yemen this year as the main cockpit in an overarching struggle for regional influence with Iran, yet the ruling Al Saud continue to regard the Syrian civil war as a pivotal battlefield in the rivalry.
Fighting has escalated in Syria in recent weeks & Russian warplanes have intervened to support Damascus while a U.S.-led coalition has stepped up strikes against Islamic State targets from the crowded skies over the country.
BLOODSHED, REFUGEES AND ATTACKS
Increased bloodshed, an influx of Syrian refugees into Europe, & a wave of international attacks claimed by Islamic State revived efforts to contain the violence.
The peace talks between the opposition & the Damascus government should start by Jan. 1, under the terms of an agreement reached by world powers & regional states at a meeting in Vienna a month ago.
Participants invited to the Riyadh opposition meeting include Islamist factions Islam Army & Ahrar al-Sham, a group whose founders had links to al Qaeda. Ahrar al-Sham fights alongside the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's Syrian wing, while espousing a nationalist agenda.
A dozen rebel groups who fight under the banner of the Free Syrian Army are moreover due to attend, including groups vetted by the United States that have received foreign military aid.
"This is the first meeting where we have all the opposition, the politicians & the armed groups," said Hadi al-Bahra, a member of the Turkey-based SNC opposition coalition.
Of the two most powerful armed groups in Syria, Islamic State has not been invited & the al Qaeda offshoot Nusra Front is moreover not expected.
SNC president Khaled Khoja said many of those coming to the two-day meeting, which aims to agree a joint agenda & negotiating team for talks with the Damascus government, were already in broad agreement. "So we see that the way out is a document of consensus," he told reporters.
Nagham al-Ghadri, another coalition member, said the opposition would not back down from demands that Assad step down as shortly as a transitional ruling body – which an international meeting on Syria called for three years ago – is established.
"The minute the transitional period should start, he should leave. We don't agree that he could stay during the transitional period," Ghadri said.
The Syrian government has dismissed any talk of a transitional body being imposed in Syria, saying any alter in power in Damascus must be decided by the Syrian people.
Some Western countries which called for Assad to step aside in 2011 have softened their demands, suggesting he could at least remain for an interim period.
Ghadri said the outside world was sending mixed messages over Syria, showing that international divisions ran even deeper than any splits in the Syrian opposition.
"It's not just us. We know what we want," she said. "Some countries don't know what they want from Syria."
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry & Sylvia Westall in Beirut, & Suleiman al-Khalid in Amman; Writing by Dominic Evans; editing by Sami Aboudi, Peter Millership & Pravin Char)