Secret Dialogue Between Syrian Regime and Opposition in Beirut
By: Maysam Rizk
Published Thursday, February 5, 2015
Beirut has now joined the list of cities where meetings between the Syrian government and opposition have taken place. In an effort to find a political solution out of the Syrian predicament, the Norwegian government is sponsoring an intra-Syrian dialogue in Lebanon under the supervision of Reverend Dr. Riad Jarjour. Will they remain low-level meetings or will we witness a ‘Beirut I’ conference on Syria?
Beirut joined other Arab, regional and international cities, such as Cairo and Moscow, as the site of meetings between representatives of the Syrian regime and of the opposition to discuss Syria’s future.
Al-Akhbar discovered that secret meetings were held in the Lebanese capital — under official Norwegian sponsorship — that included loyalist and opposition Syrian figures. Sources said that among those figures are clerics, intellectuals and politicians close to the regime and the former head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Moaz al-Khatib. They added that these figures included individuals living in and outside Syria.
These meetings are held far from the media’s prying eyes and only a few people, who arrange them, are of their occurence. The sources say that these negotiations, which are supposed to be announced in a few weeks, “were focusing on a number of issues, including breaking the ice between the parties to the conflict and establishing a foundation for a dialogue between figures who hold no official position, in the hope of moving to higher-level negotiations if they succeed in bringing closer the various viewpoints around a political solution out of the Syrian predicament.”
Sources indicate that Norway delegated the Reverend Dr. Riad Jarjour — the general secretary of the Arab Group for Muslim-Christian Dialogue — to be in charge of these meetings.
In an interview with Al-Akhbar, Jarjour did not deny holding these meetings, but he refused to discuss the details, saying only that they are between “clerics who do not identify themselves as either opposition or regime loyalists, rather it is an intra-Syrian dialogue.”
He added that these meetings are “discussing a working paper about creating a civil engagement project.”
However, Al-Akhbar’s sources stressed that “the meetings include political figures” but have not disclosed their names “because of the sensitivity of their positions and fear of any security threat.”
The sources pointed out that “the reason behind Norway’s initiative to bring Syrians together in Lebanon was due to the failure of conferences, from Geneva to Moscow.”
The sources stressed that the negotiations are not restricted to merely a civil engagement project, but entail “a comprehensive agenda” that includes “the most salient points of contention between Syrians — and there are many — such as amending the constitution, rejecting foreign intervention and the shape of Syria after the war.”
The sources also pointed out that Lebanon was chosen for holding these meetings because “high-level Lebanese officials facilitated the entry and exit of Syrian figures and because in Lebanon there are parties that support the Syrian regime and others that support the opposition.”
Furthermore, sources noted that “countries like Austria and Norway, which believe only a political solution is capable of ending this crisis, are playing a distinct role from that of other European countries.”
According to these sources, “the meetings, which are part of a series of meetings taking place outside Lebanon as well,” began a short while back but were hindered by the Arab pressures, specifically, by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. However, “the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz created a more relaxed atmosphere, removed the element of personal hatred towards Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from the equation and helped speed up Norwegian efforts.”
The sources also stressed that “the current Norwegian effort has nothing to do with the Oslo Forum in which Assad’s media advisor, Dr. Buthaina Shaaban, participated last June at the invitation of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in collaboration with the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue.”
The sources attributed this mediation efforts as being motivated by growing Norwegian concerns from the threat that terrorist organizations pose to Norway and international security.
The sources said that about a year ago the Norwegian foreign intelligence service warned that there are reports indicating “the terrorist threat will increase as dozens of Norwegian citizens join the Syrian war.” The agency revealed that there are “between 40 to 50 Norwegians fighting in Syria who might return after gaining combat expertise.” They also pointed out that Moscow is not unaware of this initiative. The Norwegian Foreign Affairs Minister Børge Brende visited the Russian capital last January and met his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and a number of high-ranking Russian officials.
This visit, according to the sources, “laid the ground for the Norwegian government to play a mediation role in an attempt to provide an alternative to the Moscow negotiations in case they do not deliver positive results.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.