AFP — A group of Syrian opposition figures is seeking to form an alternative to the National Coalition body and open negotiations with President Bashar Assad to end their country’s conflict.
The “National Syrian Democratic Conference” is expected to take place in Cairo in early May and bring together some 150 opposition figures living in Syria and abroad, organizers say.
They want to adopt a “Syrian National Charter” and a roadmap to a resolution of the conflict, which is now in its fifth year, said organizer and veteran dissident Haytham Manna.
And unlike the National Coalition, they appear flexible on Assad’s role and the nature of any transition to end the war.
“The (National) Coalition has never been able to represent the whole of the Syrian opposition because it declared itself as representing all of the opposition and Syrian society even though it excludes key constituents,” Manna told AFP.
“Our objective, by contrast, is to set up a delegation that is balanced, representative, democratically chosen and does not exclude anyone to face a government delegation in negotiations,” he said.
More than 215,000 people have been killed in Syria’s conflict, which began with anti-government protests in March 2011 but spiraled into a war after a regime crackdown.
It has become a complex, multi-front war, with jihadists like the Islamic State group seizing large swathes of territory and becoming important players.
Coalition divided by interference
The exiled opposition National Coalition, which is recognized by many in the international community, has been accused of irrelevance by rebels on the ground and has been riven by regional interference.
Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have at times had the upper hand in the body, and now its president “Khaled Khoja is seen as Turkey’s man and as close to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood,” analyst Aron Lund wrote last month.
“Like the Ankara government, Khoja has taken a hard line on peace talks… saying that negotiations must be about how, not if, Assad should resign,” Lund wrote on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Syria in Crisis website.
Manna said the nascent new grouping would be more flexible in its approach to negotiations.
“All issues will be on the table, including Assad’s departure,” he said.
The grouping would seek a “regional and international commitment to conclude negotiations on the basis of the Geneva communique, the establishment of a clear agenda and the commitment of the UN Security Council to enforce any decisions taken,” Manna added.
The Geneva communique was produced in 2012 after a meeting of international powers to discuss the conflict and calls for a transitional government with full powers without mentioning Assad specifically.
Manna said there had been broad interest in the conference from a spectrum of opposition groups, including minority Kurds, Assyrians and Turkmen.
Even inside the Coalition, “18 members have expressed interest in coming,” he said.
The core of the potential new grouping would be domestic-based dissidents and groups.
They include the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC) and figures like Louay Hussein, head of the Building the Syrian State party, who is out on bail after spending three months in prison on accusations of “weakening national sentiment”.
Other key players are expected to be Ahmad Jarba, a former head of the Coalition with close ties to Saudi Arabia, and Jihad Makdissi, a former foreign ministry spokesman who left Syria in late 2012.
Analysts skeptical about success
The organizers of the conference insist their efforts are independent, but they come amid clear concerns in Riyadh and Cairo that the Coalition has come under the influence of Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood.
And despite the organizers’ hopes, analysts say it will be difficult for any new grouping to replace the Coalition.
“Whatever comes out of Cairo, if Cairo takes place, I very much doubt the Coalition would agree to let itself be substituted by it,” Lund told AFP.
Key Western backers of the Coalition, like the United States and France, could also be unwilling to see the body supplanted by any new grouping.
Karim Bitar of the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Studies said any new grouping would also have “minimal” influence on the ground.
And he warned it would be “likely to quickly face the same problems (as the Coalition), particularly those related to foreign influence.”
Members of the Coalition also questioned the effort, and particularly ambiguity about whether the grouping was willing to countenance Assad staying on.
“This is an essential political difference. Do these people really represent the Syrian people?” asked Coalition member Samir Nashar.
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