12/09/2015, 00.00
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Rebels abandon Homs. Opposition accelerates to resolve crisis, but divisions remain

by Elie Younan
The rebel factions have begun pulling back from the country’s third largest city. For the first time in a year aid delivered to a disputed area. Riyadh hosts meeting of "Islamic front" in the struggle against Assad. Kurds and other groups excluded, who instead hold another meeting in north-eastern Syria. Diplomatic sources tell AsiaNews: positive steps, but the situation remains "critical".

Damascus (AsiaNews) - Syrian rebels this morning began evacuations from areas of ​​Homs still in their hands, following the ceasefire agreement reached recently with government forces. The pact signed by the two sides involves the return of the entire city, the third most important of Syria, to Damascus. Rebel militias have retreated to positions in Idlib province.

Meanwhile two conferences which bring together the most important opposition groups have recently begun in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and in the northeast of Syria. These meetings confirm that, whatever the outcome, the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad and the Damascus government (regime, according to some) remains deeply fractured.

Homs, in the center of the country, has a population of over 800 thousand people and in the past was known as the "capital of the revolution" and the scene of one of the first protests against President Assad, in the spring of 2011.

For the first time in nearly a year, thanks to the ceasefire wanted strongly by the United Nations, it was possible to deliver food and aid to a thus far inaccessible suburb of the city. The agreement was reached earlier this month and includes the release of more than 2 thousand members of the rebel factions and their families from the - disputed - district of Waer.

Diplomatic sources for AsiaNews in Damascus, speaking on condition of anonymity, say  this series of meetings are "positive", "from Vienna to opposition movements, up to the summit scheduled for next week in New York." The hope is that these efforts will lead "to the formation of a table for negotiations", although "the road is uphill and is full of mines that could blow up the work in progress at any moment." The diplomatic source notes that groups such as the Islamic state armed extremists and al-Nusra Front will be excluded from the negotiating table.

Meanwhile on the ground the situation remains critical "with days of extreme violence, with mortar shells, bombs - the source said - that alternate with moments of relative calm." And also in terms of aid and basic necessities, the reality "is of constant insecurity and emergency both in Damascus and in the rest of Syria, with particular attention on those most affected by the war."

In fact,  a meeting that brings together representatives of (some) political factions and armed groups of the Syrian opposition today opened in Riyadh; Kurdish factions, are disliked by the Saudis are excluded from the summit. The goal is to create a united front, with a view to future negotiations with the Syrian government.

The initiative confirms the important role that Saudi Arabia - taking over from Turkey and Qatar, in the past at the forefront in the fight against Assad intends to play in the Syrian arena. Riyadh is pushing for the creation of an "Islamic Front" (alliance of rebel groups that met for the first time in late 2013) and to assume the role of leadership in the armed front that opposes Damascus. The Saudis are not, in principle, opposed to a negotiated solution of the crisis but they want to participate in the process from a position of strength.

Previously, in the northeast of Syria another meeting involving the Kurdish factions and other groups of the Syrian opposition opened, which contrasts sharply with the united forces in Riyadh.

The two-day summit began yesterday the city of al-Malikiyeh, in the province of Hassaké, which brings together representatives of the Democratic Union Party, the main Kurdish movement in Syria, as well as local religious figures, groups of Arabs and other 'opposition forces. The goal is to achieve a political solution to the conflict based on a decentralized political system – within a united country - and the fight against extremists and jihadists.

Those attending the summit organized by the Kurds have been highly critical of the summit convoked by the Saudis, which excludes Kurds and other moderate forces but welcomes extremist groups such as Ahrar al-Cham, an ally of al-Nusra Front, affiliated to al Qaeda.

As diplomatic powers move their pieces and alliances are strengthened in view of future meetings, Syrian analysts and policy experts confirm that there are still several unresolved issues.

Primarily the lack of a real "opposition" in opposition to Assad. Secondly the divisions among the three major regional actors (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar) in trying to influence the Syrian scene. These contrasts are also ideological and try to envision a future for Syria that goes from liberal, or leftist to Islamist or Salafi. In addition the extreme militarization of the conflict makes diplomatic negotiations between forces on the ground almost impossible.

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