KUWAIT: Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba said Monday he would visit Russia at Moscow’s invitation and maintains that Western countries have given his group guarantees about the shape of a post-Geneva II conference Syria.
The announcement comes as Russia and the United States drum up support for their joint initiative to get all parties to the Syrian conflict to join peace talks slated for Jan. 22 in Geneva.
“I received an invitation from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to visit Moscow delivered by his deputy around 20 days ago,” Jarba, head of the National Coalition umbrella body, told the official KUNA news agency.
“I have accepted the invitation [but] could not go [yet] because I was busy with other engagements. I will visit Russia to convince them that their interest lies with the Syrian people and not with the regime,” Jarba said on his first official visit to Kuwait.
However, he gave no date for the visit or any indication whether it would take place before the Geneva II peace conference.
Moscow has remained one of the most stubborn supporters of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad since the Syrian conflict erupted almost 33 months ago.
The National Coalition agreed to attend Geneva II but put down a string of terms, including that Assad would have no role in Syria’s political future.
Jarba added that the opposition conditions, which also included opening humanitarian corridors and releasing women and children detainees, were accepted by the friends of Syria meeting held in London and attended by foreign ministers of 11 countries.
“Based on our agreement with the 11 foreign ministers, the Geneva II talks will be limited in duration,” Jarba said. “It will lead to a transitional government with real presidential executive powers over security, army, intelligence and the judiciary and Bashar Assad will play no role in the transitional period or the future of Syria.”
George Sabra, the head of the Syrian National Council, the largest member of the National Coalition, said Sunday that a final decision would be taken in mid-December by the Coalition on whether it will take part in Geneva II talks.
Sabra expressed skepticism that the much-delayed conference would take place as scheduled.
Speaking to Reuters, Jarba said he believed a thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran could strengthen Assad’s hand in the war.
Jarba said a disbursement of Iranian funds frozen in overseas bank accounts as part of a deal under which Iran is to curb its nuclear activity in exchange for sanctions relief could leave it more cash to spare to support Assad.
“I am worried about this closeness [in relations] from the financial side,” Jarba said in an interview with Reuters, referring to relations between the U.S. and Iran.
“There are frozen Iranian funds in foreign banks. If these funds were released to Iran, part of it could go to the Syrian regime and this complicates matters even more,” he said.
“We have conveyed this worry to the Arab and international parties and they were understanding.”
Iran is the main backer, along with Russia, of Assad’s government. Western diplomats say Iran provides Syria with billions of dollars of aid and an undisclosed number of military advisers.
Assad’s forces have been trying to boost their fortunes power around Damascus and central Syria, while infighting among rebel groups has undermined their fight against Assad and made Western governments hesitant to back them.
Jarba said the coalition would try to unify factions inside Syria ahead of the Geneva II.
“There are efforts to unify the opposition on the ground ... the armed opposition. We will meet in Turkey this month,” he said, adding factions would include the new Islamic Front, an alliance of seven rebel groups, but not al-Qaeda-linked jihadists.
The Coalition has little physical presence in Syria and little influence over militant Islamist brigades that play a major role in the fight against Assad’s forces.
In a sign of the friction among rebel groups, fighters from the Islamic Front took control of Western-backed Free Syrian Army bases on the Turkish border, rebels and activists said Saturday.
The rise of hard-line Islamist groups, including some linked to Al-Qaeda, has unsettled powers including the United States, which fear that if the militants came to power, they would eventually turn their weapons on Western targets.
While the Islamic Front does not include either of Syria’s two Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups – the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria – it does include hard-line Islamists who have coordinated with them.