Al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate on Saturday rejected the outcome of a Saudi-hosted conference of Syrian opposition figures which agreed to negotiate with the Damascus regime, branding it a “plot”.
“It is a plot, not a conference. Such… gatherings must be foiled,” Al-Nusra Front chief Abu Mohamed al-Jolani said in an interview with Orient News, a Dubai-based Syrian opposition television channel monitored in Beirut.
Syria’s main political and armed opposition groups agreed at unprecedented talks on Thursday to negotiate with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but also insisted that he step down at the start of any political transition.
“The participants are ready to negotiate with representatives of the Syrian regime… within a specific timeframe that would be agreed on with the United Nations,” participants said in a statement.
Jolani accused rebel fighters who attended the two-day conference in Saudi Arabia of “treason” and a betrayal of “the youths who have sacrificed their blood” in Syria’s nearly five-year war.
Among the groups attending the start of the Saudi talks on Wednesday was Ahrar al-Sham, one of Syria’s main rebel groups which is allied with Al-Nusra Front.
But on Thursday Ahrar al-Sham announced it had withdrawn from the gathering, saying this was because of “the fundamental role… given to personalities linked to the regime”.
But sources inside the talks and Western diplomats said Ahrar al-Sham subsequently signed on to the opposition agreement, although this could not immediately be confirmed.
In Saturday’s television interview, the Al-Nusra Front chief said that rebels who attended the Saudi talks faced “pressure” and that this was “unjustified”.
He also said that “even if they agreed” to the statement issued in the Saudi capital “they do not have the power to implement it on the ground”.
The Saudi meeting came after top diplomats from 17 countries, including backers and opponents of Assad’s regime, agreed last month in Vienna on a roadmap for the Syrian conflict.
This would see a transitional government set up within six months and elections within 18 months, and calls for negotiations between the opposition and the regime by January 1.
More than 250,000 people have been killed and millions forced from their homes since the Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011 with anti-government protests.