Syrian opposition says Assad cannot be part of deal

CAIRO Fri Feb 22, 2013 7:06am IST

Demonstrators hold opposition flags during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo February 15, 2013 in this picture provided by Shaam News Network. The red flag reads ''God is greatest''. Picture taken February 15, 2013. REUTERS/Abo Abdo/Shaam News Network/Handout

Demonstrators hold opposition flags during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo February 15, 2013 in this picture provided by Shaam News Network. The red flag reads ''God is greatest''. Picture taken February 15, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Abo Abdo/Shaam News Network/Handout

Related Topics

CAIRO (Reuters) - The opposition Syrian National Coalition is willing to negotiate a peace deal to end the country's civil war but President Bashar al-Assad must step down and cannot be a party to any settlement, members agreed after debating a controversial initiative by their president.

The meeting of the 70-member Western, Arab and Turkish-backed coalition began on Thursday before Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem is due for talks in Moscow, one of Assad's last foreign allies, and as U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi renews efforts for a deal.

After an angry late night session in which coalition president Moaz Alkhatib came under strong criticism from Islamist and liberal members alike for proposing talks with Assad's government without setting what they described as clear goals, the coalition adopted a political document that demands Assad's removal and trial for the bloodshed, members said.

A draft document seen by Reuters that was circulated for debate said Assad cannot be party to any political solution and has to be tried, but did not directly call for his removal.

"We have adopted the political document that sets the parameters for any talks. The main addition to the draft is a clause about the necessity of Assad stepping step down," said Abdelbasset Sida, a member of the coalition's 12 member politburo who has criticised Alkhatib for acting alone.

"We removed a clause about a need for Russian and U.S. involvement in any talks and added that the coalition's leadership has to be consulted before launching any future initiatives," he added.

Still, the agreement marked a softening of tone by the coalition because previously it had insisted that Assad must step down before any talks with his government could begin.

In an indication that Syria's strongman remains defiant, Brahimi said Assad had told him he will remain president until his term ends in 2014 and then run for re-election.

Brahimi told al-Arabiya television he wants to see a transitional government formed in Syria that would not answer to any higher authority and lasts until U.N.-supervised elections take place in the country.

"I am of the view that U.N. peacekeepers should come to Syria as happened in other countries," Brahimi said.

BOMB, AIR STRIKES

The opposition front convened in Cairo on a day when a car bomb jolted central Damascus, killing 53 people, wounding 200 and incinerating cars on a busy highway close to the Russian Embassy and offices of the ruling Baath Party.

Syrian state television blamed the suicide blast on "terrorists". Central Damascus has been relatively insulated from the 23-month conflict that has killed around 70,000 people, but the bloodshed has shattered suburbs around the capital.

In the southern city of Deraa near the border with Jordan, activists said warplanes bombed the old quarter for the first time since March 2011, when the town set in a wheat-growing plain rose up against Assad, starting a national revolt.

A rebel officer in the Tawheed al-Janoub brigade which led an offensive this week in Deraa said there were at least five air strikes on Thursday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 18 people were killed, including eight rebel fighters.

Coalition member Munther Makhos, who was forced into exile in the 1970s for his opposition to Assad's father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, said supplies from Iran and Russia were giving government forces an awesome firepower advantage.

"It would be surreal to imagine that a political solution is possible. Bashar al-Assad will not send his deputy to negotiate his removal. But we are keeping the door open," Makhos said.

Makhos is the only Alawite in the Islamist-dominated coalition. The Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam which accounts for about 10 percent of Syria's population but makes up most of the intelligence apparatus and dominates the army and the political system, has generally remained behind Assad.

With Alawites feeling increasingly threatened by a violent Sunni backlash, Alkhatib, a cleric from Damascus who played a role in the peaceful protest movement against Assad at the beginning of the uprising in 2011, has been calling on Alawites to join the revolution, saying their participation will help preserve the social fabric of the country.

Alkhatib's supporters say the initiative has popular support inside Syria from people who want to see a peaceful departure of Assad and a halt to the war that has increasingly pitted his fellow Alawites against Syria's Sunni Muslim majority.

But rebel fighters on the ground, over whom Alkhatib has little control, are generally against the proposal.

The Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, which represents armed brigades, said in a statement it was opposed to Alkhatib's initiative because it ignored the revolt's goal of "the downfall of the regime and all its symbols".

"We are demanding his accountability for the bloodshed and destruction he has wreaked. I think the message is clear enough," said veteran opposition campaigner Walid al-Bunni, who supports Alkhatib.

Alkhatib formulated the initiative in broad terms last month after talks with the Russian and Iranian foreign ministers in Munich but without consulting the coalition, catching the umbrella organisation by surprise.

Among Alkhatib's critics is the Muslim Brotherhood, the only organised group in the political opposition.

A Brotherhood source said the group will not scuttle the proposal because it was confident Assad is not interested in a negotiated exit, which could help convince the international community to support the armed struggle for his removal.

"Russia is key," the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We are showing the international community that we are willing to take criticism from the street but the problem is Assad and his inner circle. They do not want to leave."

PLAY FOR RUSSIA

Russia hopes Alkhatib will visit soon in search of a breakthrough. Bunni said Alkhatib would not go to Moscow without the coalition's approval and that he would not be there at the same time as Moualem.

"In my opinion Alkhatib should not go to Moscow until Russia stops sending arms shipments to the Assad regime," Bunni said.

Formal backing by the coalition for Alkhatib's initiative gives it more weight internationally and undermines Assad supporters' argument that the opposition is too divided to be considered a serious player, opposition sources said.

Coalition members and diplomats based in the region said Brahimi asked Alkhatib in Cairo last week to seek full coalition backing for his plan, which resembles the U.N. envoy's own ideas for a negotiated settlement.

One diplomat in contact with the opposition and the United Nations had said a coalition approval of Alkhatib's initiative could help change the position of Russia, which has blocked several United Nations Security Council resolutions on Syria.

The diplomat said only a U.N. resolution could force Assad to the negotiating table, and a U.N. "stabilisation force" may still be needed to prevent an all-out slide into a civil war.

"Brahimi has little hope that Assad will agree to any serious talks," the diplomat said. "Differences are narrowing between the United States and Russia about Syria but Moscow remains the main obstacle for Security Council action." (Editing by Paul Taylor and Mohammad Zargham)

FILED UNDER:
Comments (0)
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.

  • Most Popular
  • Most Shared

Korean Boat Tragedy

Family members of a missing passenger onboard the South Korean ferry Sewol which capsized on Wednesday, look at the sea as they wait for news from a rescue team, at a port in Jindo April 19, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Sunken Korea ferry relatives give DNA swabs to help identify dead

Relatives of some of the more than 200 children missing in a sunken South Korean ferry offered DNA swabs on Saturday to help identify the dead as a rescue turned into a mission to recover the vessel and the bodies of those on board.  Full Article 

REUTERS SHOWCASE

Everest Tragedy

Everest Tragedy

Death toll climbs in worst tragedy on Everest  Full Article 

Missing Plane

Missing Plane

Current underwater search for Malaysia plane could end within a week  Full Article 

Ukraine Crisis

Ukraine Crisis

Putin welcomes new NATO head, says better ties with West possible  Full Article 

Japan Military

Japan Military

Japan expands army footprint for first time in 40 years, risks angering China  Full Article 

Journalists Released

Journalists Released

Kidnapped French journalists found on Turkey's Syrian border   Full Article 

Papal Message

Papal Message

Pope Good Friday service underscores plight of the suffering.  Full Article 

Reuters India Mobile

Reuters India Mobile

Get the latest news on the go. Visit Reuters India on your mobile device.  Full Coverage