Syrian Opposition “Rearranging Cards” in Preparation for Geneva II

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US Secretary of State John Kerry, Syrian Opposition Council Chairman Moaz al-Khatib and Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu enter the press conferance at the Friends of Syria meeting on 20 April 2013 in Istanbul. (Photo: AFP - Ozan Kose)

By: Elie Hanna

Published Monday, May 13, 2013

It is as if the marching order has come from the US Secretary of State John Kerry in Moscow: Forward unto Geneva II, the follow-up conference to a June 2012 meeting to end the conflict in Syria. A renewed sense of realism has pushed the administration of US President Barack Obama to finally agree to share the ‘Syrian pie’ with the Kremlin.

Indeed, the current impasse in Syria has prompted those who had once called on Bashar al-Assad to step down, to consent to the regime’s involvement in any future transitional government.

No sooner had Kerry boarded his plane out of Russia did statements welcoming the outcome of his visit start to pour in from NATO countries. True, US-Russian rapprochement is still in its infancy and may collapse at the first fork in the road, but international attitudes suggest we may be witnessing an unprecedented breakthrough.

But Russia Today quoted a Russian official as saying that an international conference on Syria was unlikely to be held by the end of May. The source also said that there were “many differences [over] who can take part in this format, who is legitimate and who is not legitimate.”

The source went on to say, “It's obvious that this can't be done without representatives of the opposition, but the question is, which opposition? We believe that there is no clearly defined body with which negotiations could be held so that commitments would then be carried out.”

The Syrian ‘Oppositions’

One thing the Russian official’s statement does expose is the condition of the Syrian ‘oppositions’ today. Indeed, everyone in the ranks of the opposition has adopted the new international accord as a central item on their agendas without consulting anyone else.

Every element in the opposition is trying to gather the largest possible number of dissident parties and figures to put together a broad bloc that can snatch a seat. On Sunday, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) completed two days of deliberations to this very end prior to the meeting of its general assembly scheduled for May 23 in Istanbul.

Three key issues occupy the SNC agenda: preparing to elect a successor to Moaz al-Khatib, along with a new leadership council; the interim government which Ghassan Hitto failed to form; and expanding the SNC to bring in new members. Participation in the proposed Geneva II was also discussed as an urgent item, but the attendees agreed to discuss it further at the next meeting.

A member of the SNC political council told Al-Akhbar that efforts to expand revolved around admitting eight new members, known as Michel Kilo’s bloc. If that happens, the eight, who had suspended their membership, would join the nine other figures aligned with Kilo that had decided to remain in the SNC.

The source understands the impact this would have, and said this would restore balance in the SNC, which is now dominated by Qatar’s allies through the Muslim Brotherhood and Mustafa al-Sabbagh’s wing.

The presidency of the SNC itself would also be affected. According to the same Syrian opposition leader, Burhan Ghalioun, former president of the SNC’s forerunner the Syrian National Council, has a good chance to be elected to the post as he enjoys unanimous support from various segments of the SNC.

At the same time, the source said, new names are being discussed to replace Hitto (who was appointed on 18 March 2013). Always according to the source, there was no consensus when Hitto was voted in.

The time allocated for Hitto to form an interim government has now expired, the SNC member maintained, adding that Ahmad Tohme, who served as secretary of the National Council in the Damascus Declaration back in 2005, is being touted as a possible candidate.

Geneva II

Speaking to Al-Akhbar, Khaled Nasser, another member of the SNC political council, said that his group was in the process of rearranging their “cards,” adding that Geneva II has put the issue of the interim government on the backburner for now.

One SNC member who recently met with the US ambassador in Syria Robert Ford said that the US diplomat told the Syrian opposition that Washington does not favor direct military intervention in Syria. Ford, he added, said that the US wants to give peace a chance instead, something that is now on the table for those who will meet at the planned conference.

In Madrid, the opposition Syrian National Development Party is holding a conference with the sponsorship of Spain’s foreign ministry. The opposition National Coordination Committee (NCC) is the key participant in the Madrid meeting, with six leaders attending (three from within Syria and three exiled leaders), including the NCC’s representative abroad Haytham Manna, NCC General Coordinator Hassan Abdul-Azim, and NCC Secretary Rajaa Nasser.

The NCC’s participation in the meeting, as Abdul-Azim said, was preceded by questions the opposition group addressed to the organizers, after reports about objections by other participants to Mannaa’s attendance. The NCC also had questions about the format and the invitees, with rumors about some “sectarian” individuals participating, something that the NCC rejects.

Abdul-Azim said that the conference would prepare for another meeting to be held in Cairo in June to discuss establishing a broad democratic alliance that rejects military solutions and seek a peaceful settlement within the parameters of the Geneva Conference.

On the other hand, sources from both the SNC and the NCC have stated that it is not clear what Syrian dissident Michel Kilo, who is supposed to be a part of the democratic alliance to be formed during the Cairo meeting, ultimately intends to do.

A member of the executive bureau of the NCC told Al-Akhbar that Kilo initially agreed to be part of the alliance and attend the Madrid meeting, but that “the man had different calculations.”

Meanwhile, an SNC member claimed that Kilo was seeking to bring his bloc into the coalition following a Saudi push.

There have been rumors that Moaz al-Khatib, the outgoing head of the SNC, would also participate in the meeting in Spain. But an opposition figure close to Khatib denied this to Al-Akhbar, saying “Sheikh [Khatib] told me, word for word, ‘I was invited but I do not have time for such conferences.’”

Iran and the Arab League React

For his part, Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Akbar Salehi declared that Tehran is ready to participate in the international conference on Syria. Salehi said that Iran has yet to receive a formal invitation, but affirmed that his country would attend the meeting, stressing that Iran can help launch negotiations between the government and the opposition in Syria.

Meanwhile, Nabil al-Araby, secretary general of the Arab League, said that Russia has finally understood that it is the Syrian people who should decide the fate of President Bashar al-Assad. Araby, following an emergency meeting of the League, said that efforts now revolved around procedural matters related to the proposed conference, especially over who would attend from the government and opposition.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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