Narrow Slice of Syrian Opposition Prepares to Meet in Damascus

A controversial conference of Syrian opposition groups is convening in Damascus with Russian, Chinese and Syrian government backing. The group aims to “unify the vision” of Syria’s opposition, but the SNC and other large groups have declined invitations, reports Ziad Haidar for As-Safir.

al-monitor Representatives of Syrian opposition groups Haytham Manna (L), Khalaf Dahowd (C) and Rami Abdelrahman leave the Foreign Commonwealth Office after meeting Britain's Foreign Secretary, William Hague, in central London November 21, 2011. Photo by REUTERS/Luke MacGregor.

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syrian, damascus conference, damascus

Sep 21, 2012

“There is a need for guarantees of our personal safety regarding the conference, and they exist.” With these words, which were spoken in both Russian and Chinese, Syrian opposition leader Haytham Manna became confident and sure that the opposition conference to be held in Damascus on Sunday [September 23] will take place as scheduled, and that he can attend it without security concerns.

On this basis, he reportedly entered the Syrian capital yesterday [September 20] accompanied by his colleague and general coordinator of the opposition National Coordination Committee (NCC) Hassan Abd-al-Azim and his childhood friend Abd-al-Aziz al-Khair. The three concluded a visit to Beijing two days ago and headed from there to Damascus, but only after receiving regional and international guarantees, namely from Russia. Moscow seeks to revive a dead political track as a result of conflict between regional and local forces and interests.

In his first visit to Syria since 2003, Manna will participate in the national conference that the internal opposition intends to hold in Damascus on Sunday morning. So far, the conference has received Russian guarantees at the highest level, Chinese cooperation and Iranian encouragement. UN special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi has also expressed enthusiasm for the idea, saying it reflects a necessary political dimension, albeit a symbolic one, of the bloody crisis in Syria.

From his seat in the conference hall, Russian Ambassador to Syria Azamat Kulmukhametov will be observing the discussions between the roughly 20 parties and movements which have so far confirmed attendance. These include Kurdish forces from three parties, forces affiliated with the NCC — the main organizer of the conference — in addition to independents and newly licensed parties like the National Development Party.

Chinese Ambassador to Syria Zhang Xun will attend the conference along with his Russian counterpart. The NCC organizing committee hopes that other ambassadors will be in attendance at the hall in the Omayad Hotel. Committee member Ahmed Asrawi complained that more “cannot attend as a result of the security situation.” Asrawi told As-Safir that he “tried to convince at least one European ambassador to attend the conference, but in vain.” Some embassies of BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) have apologized that they would not be able to attend since their staff have moved to Beirut.

Sources close to the conference's organizing committee confirmed that invitations have been sent to the Syrian National Council (SNC), the Syrian Democratic Platform and other opposition forces abroad, who declined. The sources noted that a number of young activists from abroad, who have been given security guarantees, will attend the conference.

NCC spokesman Munther Khaddam told As-Safir that “the main objective of the conference is to exert more efforts to unify the vision of the Syrian opposition, draw a practical roadmap to save Syria from its current situation and reach a political solution that would achieve the ambitions and objectives of the Syrian people and pull Syria out of its bloody ordeal.”

By sponsoring the first political event of its kind by the political opposition in Syria in over a year, Moscow hopes to stir the stagnant waters of dialogue based on the grounds that “unifying the vision of the internal opposition would at least make it easier to plan for a solution for the crisis in Syria.” Diplomats have confirmed to As-Safir that pressure was exerted on Damascus to facilitate holding the conference on Syrian territory. They added that Syria was advised by some of its most staunch allies that it should allow the foreign press to enter the country and cover this rare and public political event, with the hope that it would become a model to be built upon.

Damascus has welcomed the conference as an opportunity for “uniting Syrians.” Syria's Foreign Ministry Spokesman Jihad Makdissi told As-Safir that “any constructive political movement aimed at uniting Syrians is welcome, as long as it rejects external interference.”

At the same time, Damascus and its allies do not deny recent important developments on the political level, specifically the intervention of foreign countries in one way or another. Among these developments are the preliminary coordination between Iran and Egypt in the Quartet Committee that was recently remodeled to include Turkey and Saudi Arabia. This coordination still falls within the framework of testing intentions and exploring viewpoints, which is far away from a political path toward solving the crisis. It puts the Syrian regime and the SNC in a defensive position toward the potential efforts of the quartet and Brahimi’s mission.

According to Western diplomats outside Syria, this has prompted some to indicate the "possibility of increasing direct military support to the opposition in order to achieve an effective success in the field.” These indications were specifically made by France, through its ambassador Eric Chevallier, who was deported from Damascus. These indications have reflected on the situation on the ground in Idleb, Aleppo and all areas adjacent to Turkey, which are witnessing considerable armament and smuggling of militants. This means that the prospective opposition dialogue in Damascus will experience “disruption on the ground,’’ which reminds everyone of the complexity of the crisis in Syria.

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