By: Haytham Mouzahem for Al-Monitor Posted on May 14.
The US State Department announced on Monday, May 13 that the international conference in Geneva of representatives from the Syrian government and the opposition may be delayed from the end of May to early June
The delay is expected for both political and technical reasons. Russian news agencies quoted a Russian official as saying on Saturday, May 11 that it will be impossible to hold the conference by the end of May. He added that “there are very many differences: who can take part in this format, who is legitimate and who is not legitimate,” indicating this could impede efforts to organize the conference announced by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov May 7 in Moscow.
While Secretary-General of the Arab League Nabil Al-Arabi revealed the Syrian government has sent Russia the names of its representatives for the conference, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Armed Forces is holding intensive meetings in Istanbul to choose its own representatives. The National Coalition will meet in Istanbul May 23-25 to finalize its position in the international conference, although the coalition has welcomed any political solution that starts with the departure of Assad. However, the coalition’s vice president, Riad Seif, has signed a statement emphasizing the need “to take with the utmost seriousness opportunities for a political solution.”
The head of the National Coordination Committee for forces of Democratic Change in Syria (NCC), Hassan Abdel Azim, welcomed the US-Russian call for an international conference to end the Syrian crisis according to the Geneva agreement. He told Al-Monitor that this agreement calls for an end to violence by both sides, the release of detainees and prisoners, the formation of a transitional government with sufficient authority to enforce constitutional principles and for parliamentary and presidential elections.
Abdel Azim asserted that this conference that seeks to implement the Geneva agreement’s principles is the only solution to save Syria from destruction and division. He said that his organization has been invited to attend the conference as an “essential part of the opposition,” and that his group is working on “writing their vision and ideas for a peace process that guarantees its success.” He added that he believes that the international conference “will face a lot of difficulties and obstacles.”
When asked whether his movement has any condition for attending the conference, Abdel Azim stated, “The issue now is not the issue of conditions, as this conference is the only solution available to stop the violence and to protect Syria of division risks and chaos.” Therefore, the NCC is keen to participate in the conference and attempt to make it successful, he added. Regarding the transitional government, Abdel Azim declared that his group wants this government to include all the opposition and revolutionary forces in addition of to those from the present government who want to participate in a comprehensive political solution. He said that the NCC does not set conditions for participating in this transitional government, but it is necessary to “create an atmosphere of negotiation that helps to stop violence and to facilitate the passage of humanitarian aid and the return of displaced persons and refugees to their homes.”
Abdel Azim asserted the necessity that this government must be formed of well-known national opposition figures and that the prime minister should be from the opposition. He added that all members of that government, from both the regime and the opposition sides, must be qualified and not be “partners in murders and destruction and corruption.”
When asked about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s role in the transitional period and whether he should be excluded from any future solution, Abdel Azim responded, “This issue is not in the opposition’s hand nor the regime’s hands, but in the international community’s hands.”
A Syrian source told Al-Monitor that it is likely that Prime Minister Wael Al-Halqi will head the government’s delegation to the international conference. He added that the Syrian regime welcomed the conference, throwing the ball into opposition’s court and relying on its division and fragmentation into several oppositions. A few months ago, Syrian Minister for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar welcomed dialogue with persons not involved in bloodshed and who has not called for foreign intervention in Syria. The Syrian source commented that the regime is not strong enough to determine who can participate or not from the opposition. Syrian MP Muaffaq Al-Habshi told Al-Monitor that the US-Russian agreement is a positive step, due to the influence of international and regional players in Syria today. He hoped that this agreement would become a consensus between all sides to protect the unity and security of Syria.
Regarding the transitional government, Al-Habshi said that any process that would save Syria’s unity and respect her people’s interests would be supported, but there would be reservations over the participation of those who had been partner of murders in the government, in reference to the opposition’s military factions.
The Russian official mentioned previously said, “It’s obvious that this can’t be done without representatives of the opposition, but the question is, which opposition?”
Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib, the outgoing president of the National Coalition, told Al Jazeera English on May 11 the reasons for his resignation and the disputes inside the coalition as well as the influence of regional states, in reference to Qatari and Saudi Arabian interference in the coalition. He said, “Matters have now reached a point that it is no longer acceptable. I have become only a means to sign some papers while there are hands from different parties involved who want to decide on behalf of the Syrians … There are many things I do not agree with and there were ambiguous agreements that I think were not in the interests of the Syrian people.” Al-Khatib said that the National Coalition is electing a new leadership, indicating that some regional states have submitted names to be appointed in the coalition’s leadership and membership.
Haytham Mouzahem is a Lebanese analyst specializing in Middle Eastern and Islamic affairs. On Twitter: @haytham66