Syria’s Saudi-backed opposition, whose representatives are in Geneva for a fresh round of UN-led peace talks, renews the call for President Bashar al-Assad’s departure, casting further doubts about the prospect of a breakthrough in the negotiations.
Nasr al-Hariri, the head of the so-called High Negotiations Committee (HNC), said in Geneva on Monday evening that Assad’s departure should be set before the start of any transition process.
Hariri was selected as the chief HNC negotiator on Friday during a conference in Saudi Arabia. He replaced Riyad al-Hijab, who quit shortly before the opposition forum in Riyadh.
“We stress that political transition which achieves the ousting of Assad at the beginning is our goal,” al-Hariri said on the eve of the eighth round of UN-brokered talks aimed at ending the six-year crisis in the Arab country.
He also claimed that some within the broader opposition believe a demand for Assad’s ouster amounts to a “precondition” for the talks.
Meanwhile, the United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura stressed Monday that “we will not accept any preconditions by either party” for the talks.
He expressed hope that the Geneva talks would eventually enable the Syrian warring sides to launch a “genuine” political process.
UN spokeswoman Alessandra Vellucci has confirmed that a delegation from the Syrian government will be arriving in Geneva on Wednesday to attend this week’s peace talks, after initial reports about the likely absence of Syrian government negotiators.
“The government delegation has not yet arrived but (UN envoy Staffan de Mistura) has received the message that they are planning to arrive tomorrow,” she said.
Syrian media earlier suggested that the government delegation would delay its planned Tuesday arrival due to the opposition’s demand that Assad leave power.
In a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on November 20, Assad said he was “ready for dialogue with all those who want to come up with a political settlement.”
Previous rounds of negotiations over the past five years have failed to achieve a tangible result, mainly due to the opposition’s insistence that Assad should cede power.
That condition seems no longer tenable due to Syria’s continued victories against the militants in the recent past.
In another development, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated his country’s support for Syria’s territorial integrity.
“We look at the territorial integrity of Syria as an absolute necessity. Nobody for the time being, and I hope, will never say that this principle is being questioned,” Lavrov said Monday.
Russia, along with Iran and Turkey, has been mediating a parallel peace process between Syria’s warring parties in Astana, Kazakhstan, since January.
The Russian top diplomat further said that the need to protect Syrian sovereignty was approved in the tripartite summit of Russia, Iran, and Turkey held in the Russian city of Sochi.
He said that the Syrian National Dialog Congress, scheduled to be held in Sochi, would start working soon. Damascus has affirmed that it will attend the congress.
The all-Syrian congress would involve drawing up a framework for Syria’s future structure, adopting a new constitution and holding elections under the UN supervision, Putin said at the time.