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Riyadh meeting aims to form ‘realistic’ opposition

Opposition figures who insisted on Al Assad’s departure were not invited to participate

  • Staffan de Mistura (left) with other participants at the Syrian opposition meeting in Riyadh, on Wednesday. Image Credit: AFP
  • Saudi Minister of Arab Gulf Affairs Thamer Al Sabhan speaks with Russian Special Presidential Envoy for Syria Image Credit: Reuters
Gulf News

Damascus: Aside from unifying Syria’s myriad of opposition groups ahead of UN-mandated talks in Geneva on November 28, the gathering taking place this week in Riyadh aims to elect new representatives to replace ten senior figures who resigned ahead of the conference—including the High Negotiations Committee head Riad Hijab.

According to sources in the opposition, many of these names were not invited to Riyadh, ostensibly because they were against political concessions—specifically their demand that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad be excluded from the political process going forward.

The pressure to rescind the long-held opposition demand for Al Assad’s departure comes amid massive pressure from Russia and Iran.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was quick to comment on the development, saying on Tuesday that Hijab’s resignation would make it possible to unite the Syrian Opposition on a “realistic and constructive” basis.

In addition to Hijab, the list of names absent from Riyadh includes Khaled Al Khoja and Ahmad Al Jarba, two former presidents of the National Coalition, Nawaf Al Fares, ex-ambassador to Iraq, Salem Al Muslet, Abdul Hakim Bashar, Riad Naasan Agha, General Abdul Aziz Al Shallah, a former commander of military police.

Unlike the rest, Al Khoja and Al Jarba have not resigned from party ranks, instead vowing to boost their opposition efforts, freed from the constraints of office and regional pressure.

In solidarity with Hijab, opposition veteran Suhair Atasi stepped down as well, announcing her resignation via Twitter.

The daughter of a much-respected Arab nationalist and early Baath founder, who fell out with the regime from the mid-70s, she wrote: “They asked us to accept Al Assad or there would be no room for us!”

She did not specify which countries had made such a demand, claiming that not one single country was behind it, adding: “Our resignation is a response to an overall international tendency to apply pressure only on the opposition to accept Al Assad the butcher in the transition period.”

The figures excluded from Riyadh are mostly ex-Baathists and regime defectors who hail from cities and towns which were hotbeds of the early anti-regime protests.

Hijab, 51, is a former prime minister from Deir Al Zor, who once headed the Baath Party branch in his native city, and then served as governor or Al Quneitra before becoming minister of agriculture.

Naasan Agha, 70, hails from Idlib in the Syrian northwest.

He studied Arabic literature at Damascus University and became an MP in the Syrian Parliament in 1990, then joined the Presidential Palace as an adviser, before becoming culture minister in 2006.

Salem Al Muslet, 58, is a native of Al Qamishly in the Syrian northeast, chief of the powerful Jabour tribe that bestrides Syria and Iraq.

Educated in the US, he worked for years in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, serving as president of the Syrian Tribal Council and a member of the Executive Council of the Syrian National Council (SNC) that was formed in 2011.

Abdul Hakim Bashar, aged 59, hails from Al Hassakeh, also in northeastern Syria.

A medical doctor by training, he has been active in Kurdish politics all of his life, namely with the Kurdish Democratic Party. Nawaf Al Fares of Albukamal hails from a powerful tribe Ogeidat tribe. He served as head of the Baath Party branch in Deir Al Zor, and then as governor of Latakia, Idlib, and Al Quneitra.

In 2008 he was appointed ambassador to Iraq and was the first top diplomat to defect in 2012.

Khaled Al Khoja and Ahmad Al Jarba are different, however, having never assumed government office in their lives.

Born in Damascus, Khoja, 52, is a Syrian Turkmen who studied medicine in Turkey and was anti-regime since the 1980s. Jarba, 48, hails from a prominent tribe in Al Qamishly, who lived in Damascus and worked in business until 2011.

Although not invited to Riyadh, both he and Khoja have not resigned.

With the departure of the other names, all eyes are now trained on who will replace Hijab as head of the HNC. The ex-prime minister is reportedly going for medical treatment in the US, or early political retirement.

Al Jarba was earmarked for replacing him, until this week, and to date, no names been officially selected.

This means that the opposition is now free of many regime defectors and Qatar-backed figures, as well, transforming into a more cohesive Saudi-backed body, ahead of Geneva VIII.