Last updated: 18 December, 2013

Syria opposition insists West wants Assad gone

A senior member of the Syrian opposition said Wednesday Western nations had offered reassurances that President Bashar al-Assad will play no role in a negotiated political transition.

His remarks appeared to contradict recent press reports suggesting that Western nations, fearing the rising power of jihadist groups in Syria, may want Assad or members of his inner circle to remain in power during the transition.

Monzer Aqbiq, an advisor to the leader of the Syrian National Coalition, insisted that remarks behind closed doors at a meeting last week in London among countries backing the opposition matched a statement issued after the meeting, which said: “Assad will have no role in Syria, as his regime is the main source of terror and extremism in Syria.”

“The 11 countries (including the United States, France and Britain), and behind them the 100 members of the ‘Friends of Syria,’ agree that there should be no role for Assad,” Aqbiq told AFP.

“This is not (just) the official line, this was also the line that was repeated inside the meetings.”

His remarks came after press reports cited opposition officials as saying Western delegates had told the opposition that Assad or at least his Alawite minority may have to remain in power during the transition because of the rising power of jihadists.

“I was present in all the meetings and there were no remarks of this kind. On the contrary, what was said was the complete opposite,” Aqbiq said.

The United States has been pressing Syria’s fractured opposition to attend peace talks planned next month in Switzerland aimed at ending the nearly three-year civil war, which has claimed an estimated 126,000 lives and displaced millions.

The opposition has insisted Assad step down as part of any transition.

But the Western-backed rebels on the ground have suffered a series of setbacks in recent weeks, raising questions about whether any agreement reached next month could actually be implemented.

The Islamic Front, an alliance of Islamist rebel groups that is now the largest opposition fighting force in Syria, overran a border post earlier this month and captured warehouses held by the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, leading to a suspension of US and British aid to the moderate group.

The Islamic Front does not include Al-Nusra Front or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — two Al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria — but it has also shown little if any interest in the peace talks.

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said last week that Washington would continue to support “moderate” forces but will withhold non-lethal aid until it can assess who controls arms depots and border crossings, calling the recent setbacks a “big problem.”