BEIRUT: The opposition Syrian National Coalition will hold leadership elections Monday under a strict media blackout, opposition sources said Friday, as preparations for rival opposition talks were also underway.
The bloc, meeting in Turkey, will hold elections for president, secretary-general and political bureau. It will also try to forge a position on attendance at the scheduled internationally backed peace conference on Syria, dubbed “Geneva II,” to be held in Switzerland on Jan. 22 to bring the Syrian regime, its opponents and their respective international sponsors to talks.
The current president of the coalition, Ahmad Jarba, who took up the post in July with Saudi backing, will run for a second term, his chief of staff said.
“President Jarba will run again, as he is entitled for two terms under the constitution,” Monzer Aqbiq told The Daily Star. “Nominations will be made [for the presidency] at the meeting itself and a decision made on the 6th.”
For the first time, media and other guests will not be able to attend the meeting, to be held at an undisclosed location outside of Istanbul. Mobile phones will also be banned in an effort to stem rumors and leaks that have been the cause of “distraction” in the past, Aqbiq said.
The polls are considered crucial ahead of a decision on whether or not the coalition will attend the Geneva talks and under what conditions.
The coalition is so far divided on whether or not to agree to negotiations with Bashar Assad’s regime, stipulating that the aims of the talks must be Assad’s removal.
The Syrian regime has repeatedly insisted on talks without conditions and says that Assad’s tenure is not up for discussion.
Aqbiq also reiterated Jarba’s position that Syria ally Iran not be allowed to participate in the talks, “unless it withdraws its fighters, including Hezbollah and Iraqi militias from Syria,” he said.
Further throwing Geneva – and its impact – into doubt is the refusal of Islamist militant rebel groups to take part in the conference.
Large swathes of territory in northern and northeastern Syria have fallen out of regime control, and are held by a range of groups that don’t recognize the coalition’s authority: the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Nusra Front, and an alliance of seven Islamist militias dubbed the Islamic Front, as well as Kurdish militias.
They reject both the Western-backed coalition and its military arm, the Syrian Military Council, which oversees the mainstream Free Syrian Army.
A coalition source revealed that former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who defected from the regime in August 2012, will also run for the presidency, and claimed he enjoyed the backing of Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and a powerful faction in the coalition aligned with Qatar’s point man and secretary-general, Mustafa Sabbagh.
“Jarba has some strong competition but will win for now,” the source predicted.
Complicating matters further in the lead-up to Geneva is a second meeting in Spain on Jan. 9 and 10, of some 200 Syrian opposition supporters from the coalition and elsewhere which could undermine the coalition’s legitimacy ahead of the talks.
The conference, to be held in Cordoba, is being touted by attendees as a session of national unity talks to build consensus on attendance at Geneva, buttressed by a range of representatives from across the opposition spectrum, including members of the coalition, and the “internal opposition” the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (NCB), which operates inside Syria.
Crucially, attendees say they are hoping that the Islamic Front will attend the Geneva meeting, although as yet there has been no response to the invitation.
“There are several problems – one is that [the Islamic Front] doesn’t recognize the coalition,” said veteran dissident and coalition member Kamal Labwani.
“But we need them. They represent 40 percent of Syrians on the ground. They have to be part of the political process.”
Labwani said that the purpose of the Cordoba meeting was not to create more division or produce a rival to the coalition, but “to unify the opposition and form one stance on Geneva.”
Jarba will not attend the Cordoba meeting, Aqbiq said, but confirmed that he had recently met in Cairo with leaders from the NCC, Hassan Abdel-Azim and Haitham Mannaa, without elaborating.