Middle East

Opposition demands guarantees Assad will quit

Mouaz al-Khatib, former chief of the Syrian National Coalition, left speaks with Spain's Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo just after a news conference at the foreign ministry in Madrid, Spain Tuesday May 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Paul White)

BEIRUT: Syrian opposition representatives have demanded international guarantees that President Bashar Assad step down in any peace deal, former opposition chief Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib said Tuesday, as Russia and the United States step up efforts to organize a peace conference.

The demand was one of eight points set out in a road map agreed by delegates to a two-day Syrian National Consultation meeting in Madrid, Khatib said on his Facebook page.

Delegates also stipulated that “involvement in any political process on Syria depends on the army’s withdrawal to its barracks, on the release of all detainees, and on humanitarian assistance being allowed into all areas of the country without exception.”

It also said the National Coalition – which Khatib has left – would be “the legitimate representative” of Syrian opposition forces in any negotiations.

“Bashar Assad and his security regime are not a part of any transitional phase, and they have no role in Syria’s future,” the document said, adding that there needed to be “international guarantees” for his departure.

It also said Syria would be led by a transitional government “until the foundations are laid for a new political system based on democracy, pluralism, justice, equality and the rule of law.”

In an interview with El Mundo, Khatib said his goal was “to draft a document that all Syrians can agree on – not just the revolutionaries. Many people are waiting for something to unite them.”

Speaking alongside Khatib at the conference, Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo said Madrid favored a partial lifting of sanctions against Syria to allow the delivery of “defense material” that could include arms to help protect the population.

To date, Spain has defended sending only nonlethal aid. Margallo said Spain’s position was “changing with the evolution of circumstance on the ground.” He said the material could include arms but stressed that it was for defense.

European Union foreign ministers are to meet May 27 to decide on whether to lift the sanctions, which expire June 1. Britain and France also favor arming the rebels.

The Madrid conference came as Assad put forward names of five officials from his administration for U.S.-Russian-backed peace talks, European Union diplomatic sources said.

The list includes Prime Minister Wael al-Halki and more junior officials. According to a second EU diplomat, Syria’s opposition has already rejected some of the officials on the list because of their lack of influence.

The EU sources said Assad in early March circulated a list of names for possible talks, including Halki, Vice Prime Minister Qadri Jamil, Information Minister Omran Zoabi, National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar and Joseph Sweid, the minister charged with overseeing Red Crescent Affairs.

The source said Assad had since confirmed to Russia that these were the officials he wanted to send to negotiations which Moscow and Washington are trying to organize to end a conflict that has killed at least 80,000 people.

“The list is likely to change,” the first diplomat said, adding that any official sent to the meeting had to have sufficient weight to properly negotiate.

The second diplomat said Syria’s National Coalition had already deemed some of the names unacceptable, without saying which.

Both diplomats are closely involved in the planning and consultations for the peace talks.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is due to discuss current planning for the Geneva conference next month at a meeting in Jordan Wednesday of the “Friends of Syria” club, while the National Coalition is to meet in Istanbul Thursday to decide whether to take part.

“The Syrian people are building great hopes on the conference, as the opposition prepares itself to take part and likewise the Syrian regime prepares to take part in this conference,” United Nations-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said Tuesday.

“The United Nations is working to organize the conference in the best way possible.”

Brahimi said: “There are many problems in the preparation for this conference, the first of which is the formation of the delegations of the regime and the opposition.”

He added: “The Geneva 2 conference is a great opportunity, and we hope that the brothers in Syria and the regional and international parties will cooperate to make it succeed.”

The peace conference next month will only work if the government and rebels send credible negotiating teams, the U.N.’s Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said Tuesday.

“There have to be two, credible delegations to negotiate,” Eliasson told reporters in Geneva, the planned venue of the talks.

“We’re working very hard for a meeting as soon as possible. We’re in contact with the parties, and with the Security Council members, that are involved. But we hope very much that the meeting will take place, and soon,” he said.

Amid growing speculation that the talks could be held from June 10, Eliasson declined to be drawn on potential dates but confirmed that the target was still next month.

“It’s being worked out progressively now with the parties and we will have to wait for those consultations before we can conclude exactly how the conference will take place,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 22, 2013, on page 8.




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