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Syrian High Negotiations Committee under fire

Activists in northern Syria have formed a movement to oust the High Negotiations Committee, which they say isn't representing their demands.

ALEPPO, Syria — Syrians in the country's opposition-controlled north are demanding the dissolution of the Syrian High Negotiations Committee (HNC), claiming the negotiators are making too many concessions to the regime and even Russia and Iran.

Activists accuse the HNC, headed by opposition leader Nasr al-Hariri, of giving up too much and failing to implement items stipulated in the Geneva I conference, which include forming a transitional government in Syria and releasing detainees from regime prisons. 

The HNC was established in November 2017 in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, during the opposition’s second Riyadh conference. It has 50 members representing the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, the Moscow and Cairo platforms, Free Syrian Army factions and a number of independent opposition figures.

On Oct. 5, Syrians took to the streets of opposition-held Idlib and the countrysides of Aleppo and Hama. They are calling their movement “The HNC Does Not Represent Us." (Another name considered was "Normalization with Assad is Treason.") 

Figures representing the HNC, including Hariri, criticized the movement's demands and even its name. Hariri told al-Arabiya news that the regime, on the other hand, likes the new group's name, and will no doubt be pleased that a movement is rising to challenge the HNC.

Demonstrators called for dissolving the HNC and holding it responsible for what's happening in Idlib and other opposition-held areas. The protesters raised banners attacking the HNC, stressing that it has failed to provide any benefits to the Syrian revolution and the liberated areas. Their signs conveyed the messages: “The revolution shall continue until our victory is achieved” and “The political solution begins with overthrowing the regime and prosecuting its figures."

Activists explained that the protest movement’s name is a strong message from the revolutionary street to energize all opposition-affiliated institutions and forces. This will force politicians to seriously reconsider the situation and discuss reform.

“Hariri’s statements and his criticism of anti-HNC protesters in the north have angered many," said Yahia Nanaa, head of the Association of Free Syrian Engineers in Aleppo and a member of the Political Body of Syrian Revolutionary Forces. "Syrian activists in opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo’s countryside vowed to carry on with their movement, demanding the dismissal of the HNC.”

He told Al-Monitor, “The HNC wasn't at the level we expected it to be. It worked to achieve international interests rather than revolutionary ones. We, as the Syrian opposition, are in dire need of restructuring the HNC and creating change that guarantees the interests of the national revolution. We need to eliminate mercenaries, those who benefit from them and who don't work for the revolution.”

Mohammed Shakib al-Khaled, also a member of the Political Body of Syrian Revolutionary Forces in Idlib, told Al-Monitor the group considers HNC an illegal representative of the opposition.

“Every military, political or other opposition institution must serve the objectives of the Syrian revolution, and if it fails to do so, then it does not represent the opposition in any way. The HNC is supposed to be an opposition-affiliated institution representing the Syrian revolution and defending it in international forums. However, we were surprised to see that some members of the HNC still consider Bashar al-Assad to be a legitimate president, treating the oppressor as the victim. In addition, certain independent figures that no one knew about have for some reason joined the HNC.”

Khaled noted that the Cairo and Moscow platforms are two Syrian gatherings that were announced in Egypt and Russia in 2014, claiming to represent a spectrum of Syrian opposition. However, the opposition in northern Syria believes that these platforms are close to Russia and the regime, and have different orientations and objectives than those of the Syrian revolution. He explained the opposition is convinced Russia has worked to deliberately involve the Cairo and Moscow platforms in the HNC.

Abu al-Ala al-Halabi, an activist in northern Aleppo province, told Al-Monitor, “There's a real problem within the HNC. It doesn't serve the Syrian revolution, nor does it care for the people’s demands. This is why [the HNC] needs to be changed. Reform should be established in all other political institutions affiliated with the opposition as well. They must be restructured so as to serve our people in the best possible way and always put Syria’s interests above all else.”

On Oct. 15, controversial HNC Vice Chairman Khaled Mahameed submitted his resignation, one day before the Syrian opposition candidates to the Constitutional Committee met in Riyadh. He said he resigned because he was under a lot of pressure.

HNC members would not answer Al-Monitor’s questions about Mahameed and refused to comment on the demonstrations.

Opposition to Hariri and HNC has been building for some time. When Hariri visited al-Bab in July, dozens of opposition activists demonstrated in front of the city’s local council demanding his dismissal. Protesters held banners rejecting the HNC and accusing its members of visiting their area to promote reconciliation with the regime.

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