Syrian opposition insists Al Assad must leave before negotiations begin

There can be no transition without the departure of Bashar Al Assad and his clique, says communique

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Tayyip Erdogan meet in Sochi, Russia November 22, 2017. Sputnik/Mikhail Metzel/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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Syria’s main opposition group says it rejects any  role for Syrian president Bashar Al Assad both post-war and in any UN-sponsored interim period leading to a political transition.

The opposition met in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, with the aim of outlining a unified vision before UN peace talks in Geneva next week.

“The participants stressed that this (the transition) cannot happen without the departure of Bashar al Assad and his clique at the start of the interim period,” said the communique issued after the meeting.

It went on to say the participants support a UN-based political process that allows Syria to undergo "a radical political transition" from an "authoritarian system" to a democracy where free elections would be upheld.They also blamed the Syrian government for the lack of progress in past talks held in Geneva.

More than 140 representatives from a broad spectrum of the mainstream opposition attended the meeting, including independents and Free Syrian Army military factions.

The statement comes as Russia’s president won the backing of Iran and Turkey to host a Syrian peace congress.

Vladimir Putin hosted Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president, and the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Wednesday. The Russian leader has taken a central role in a major diplomatic push to end the civil war in Syria.

Igor Sutyagin, senior research fellow at the Royal Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) says the congress is a "tactical move" on the part of Mr Putin.  He told The National, “The Syrian peace congress will not bring an answer to all questions of the conflict.Russia wants to get rid of any competitors in Syria/ in order to secure its previously diminished place in the region... and restore its influence as a world-class power in the Middle East and North Africa.”

The Sochi announcement also came a few days after Mr Putin met with Mr Al Assad, an indication that the Syrian leader had agreed to the idea. But there was no word from the leaders on who would be invited.

The issue is certainly a sticking point, with Turkey adamantly opposed to Syrian Kurdish groups attending or taking part in negotiations, while at the same time supporting Syria's territorial unity.

“The three organisers do not agree among themselves” Mr Sutyagin said.  “For example Turkey wants to wipe out the Kurds. However, Moscow wants to have a card against Turkey, but they also don’t want to abandon and lose the support of the Kurds.”

Mahir Unal, spokesman for Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, said Ankara was concerned about the prospect of the Syrian opposition  - which Turkey has always supported - negotiating with President Al Assad "after all these deaths."  But it is even more concerned about any potential threat from Syrian Kurds linking up with the Kurds in Turkey.

In response, Moscow said, "We know that there are certain reservations on the part of our Turkish partners with regards to the forces they believe pose a threat to their national security."

In Sochi, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov  said agreement on who will take part in the congress would require "intense expert work." He gave no date for the congress beyond saying it would convene "in the near future."

But Mr Sutyagin said the Russian president is more concerned about organising  a successful congress than finding a solution to the conflict.”

Meanwhile, Iran  — a longtime supporter of Mr Al Assad -  will try to turn its hard power and success on the ground into political capital, said Adnan Tabatabai, head of Carpo, a think tank based in Germany.

He told The National, "[Iran wants] to ensure that the political reality of Syria’s future will appreciate Iran’s role in defeating ISIL and other terrorist groups.It is trying to highlight what Mohammad Javad Zarif [Iran’s foreign minister] once introduced as the four-point plan for Syria comprising a ceasefire, national unity government, constitutional reform and elections. Iran wants to support any upcoming peace congress and relate that to its own 4-point plan.

“Mr Rouhani made it clear in Sochi that Iran supports the inner Syrian dialogue. He also said there is no future for foreign actors in Syria unless the Syrian government calls for it so it leaves a back door open for an Iranian presence in Syria.”