Beirut: A Syrian opposition meeting due to begin in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday marks the most serious effort yet to unify President Bashar al-Assad`s fragmented enemies, a step seen as vital to peace talks sought by world powers but which has riled Iran.
While the outlook for the political track recently launched in Vienna appears bleak - international divisions over Assad persist and the war in Syria has escalated - the Riyadh meeting offers the prospect of forging a more united opposition better able to negotiate with the government.
Assad`s opponents and the governments that back them see it as a long-overdue step towards ending the disunity that has obstructed diplomacy: the Turkish-based political opposition that led the last round of failed peace talks two years ago was widely criticised as out of touch with forces on the ground.
The Riyadh meeting is meant to bring rebels, or those who represent them, to the table when negotiations begin.
Yet Iran, whose Shi`ite-led government is an arch rival of the Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia, has said the meeting is aimed at harming the Vienna peace talks and would cause their failure. The Vienna process envisages formal talks between the Syrian government and the opposition by Jan. 1.
The participants invited to Riyadh include powerful Islamist factions Islam Army and Ahrar al-Sham - a group whose founders had links to al Qaeda. Ahrar al-Sham still fights alongside the Nusra Front, al Qaeda`s Syrian wing, while espousing a nationalist agenda.
Islam Army said in a statement that its commander, Zahran Alloush, would not attend because the group had lost control of the road he had been planning to use to exit the area in the Damascus suburbs where the group is based. Members of Islam Army`s political office will attend instead, it said.
A dozen Free Syrian Army rebel groups will also attend, including groups vetted by the United States that have received foreign military aid. They include recipients of US-made anti-tank missiles supplied to rebels in larger quantities since Russia intervened militarily on Assad`s side on Sept. 30.
"It is the first time there is a meeting in Saudi - a meeting of soldiers and politicians - and it has a greater chance of success because Saudi is hosting it," said the head of one of the FSA groups.
"Saudi is a pivotal state in the region and for it to take this step - to host a conference of the Syrian opposition factions - certainly something real will result from it."
He declined to be named because of political sensitivities surrounding the conference. Underlining the complexities, media access to the conference is expected to be highly restricted.
An initial list of 65 invitees has grown to many more than that, sources familiar with arrangements say.