Details emerged on Saturday of plans to reshape Syria’s opposition into a representative government-in-exile, on the eve of key talks between regime opponents.
The talks starting Sunday in the Qatari capital Doha come amid US criticism of the main exiled opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week was not representative.
Reports have emerged that Washington is pressing for an overhaul of the opposition, with long-time dissident Riad Seif touted as the potential head of a new government-in-exile dubbed the Syrian National Initiative.
Seif and about two dozen other leading opposition figures gathered in Jordan’s capital Amman this week and came up with proposals for a new body to represent the disparate groups opposing President Bashar al-Assad.
Among those in attendance were some SNC members, former premier Riad Hijab, who defected in August, Ali Sadreddin Bayanuni of the Muslim Brotherhood and Kurdish and tribal representatives, participants said.
In a statement Saturday, participants sought to quell concerns the overhaul is aimed at building an opposition that would be willing to negotiate with Assad.
“Assad and his entourage leaving power is a non-negotiable precondition for any dialogue aimed at finding a non-military solution, if that is still possible,” the statement said.
The Amman meeting also came out in support of “efforts underway to put in place a unified political body for the whole of the opposition,” according to the statement.
It examined “the means to unify the opposition in a way worthy of the sacrifices on the ground and to secure the international, regional and Arab support needed to overthrow the regime.”
The group backed the rebel “Free Syrian Army and the movements behind the revolution on the ground as legitimate means to topple the criminal regime.”
Hijab’s spokesman, Mohammed al-Otri, said the group was proposing “the creation of a new political organ of the opposition, representing all of its components.”
He said the new body would include the 14 members of the SNC executive, three members of the Kurdish National Council, representatives of on-the-ground activists and fighters, longstanding dissidents and religious leaders.
“It remains to be decided whether this body will replace the SNC or will constitute a new coalition,” Otri said, adding that the creation of the group “will certainly lead to the formation of a government” in exile.
In a separate statement, Bayanuni underlined the Brotherhood’s support for “the idea of a political leadership to bring together the opposition” including the SNC.
But he said the Brotherhood supported maintaining the SNC, in which it holds significant influence, and “not replacing it with a new body.”
The SNC lashed out on Friday at alleged US interference with the opposition, accusing Washington of undermining the country’s revolt and “sowing the seeds of division” by seeking the overhaul.
Clinton had voiced frustration with the SNC, saying it was not representative of on-the-ground opposition forces and that it “can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition.”
Washington denied it was trying to interfere with the opposition, insisting it was simply seeking to ensure that more voices were heard.
“This is not a matter of the US dictating,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Nuland said the United States had backed the SNC for more than a year but now felt it needed to broaden its political base to “connect the various political groups inside Syria”.
Washington, she said, wants to see a broader spectrum of communities in the opposition leadership including “not only the Sunni population but the Alawis, the Druze, the Christians, the Kurds, any other minority groups, women.”