The leading Saudi daily Asharq Alawsat today suggests in its front page lead that the Americans and Russians are working hand in hand to put together a pliant Syrian opposition to negotiate with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Geneva.
The paper says U.S. and Russian representatives held talks this week with opposition figures outside the Syrian National Coalition of Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, which most Western and Arab countries recognize as sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
Asharq Alawsat’s report follows remarks by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov saying he would be meeting separately in Geneva Wednesday with each of:
Rifaat al-Assad, who fled Syria and went into exile in Europe in 1984 after staging a failed coup attempt against his brother Hafez al-Assad, the then president and father of Bashar. A sworn opponent of the current regime from which he has firmly distanced himself, there are no international sanctions against him. But human rights groups accuse him of playing a leading role in the bloody crushing of a 1982 uprising against his brother, in which tens of thousands were killed in Hama. He has denied the accusations.
More recently, French anti-corruption campaign groups have accused him of corruption, money laundering, embezzlement of public funds and misuse of corporate assets.
Siwar al-Assad, a son of Rifaat, told The New York Times in a telephone interview from Geneva his father wanted to attend the proposed peace talks, known as Geneva II, as an opposition figure whose presence would reassure government supporters and help bring about a compromise.
He said his father did not insist that President Assad step down as a prerequisite for talks.
“By putting preconditions, nothing will change, and every day people are dying,” Siwar al-Assad said, calling President Assad’s imminent departure “a fantasy” and adding, “I’m not pro-Bashar, but I’m a person who is realistic.”
It was unclear whether other parties would accept even sitting with Rifaat al-Assad at talks, much less whether talks will take place. But the Russian move was a sign of casting about for new ways to break the impasse.
The meeting between Rifaat al-Assad and Bogdanov drew scorn from many opponents of the president. They call Rifaat al-Assad the Butcher of Hama, a reference to his role in the bloody suppression of a violent uprising in that Syrian city in 1982.
Siwar al-Assad said his father did not want to be president and advocated a gradual handover of power under a transition council including government and opposition members, a new constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech and of the press and an independent judiciary, and transparent elections in which anyone, including Bashar al-Assad, could run. Asked if Rifaat al-Assad expected to meet soon with American officials, Siwar al-Assad told The NYT, “maybe.”
Manaf Tlass, a former Brigadier General of the elite Syrian Republican Guard and a member of Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle until his defection in July 2012. He is the son of Mustafa Tlass who served as defense minister for 32 years from 1972 to 2004.
Haytham al-Manna’ of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), denies meeting Rifaat al-Assad in Geneva on Wednesday. “I am one of the people who started the criminal case against Rifaat al-Assad… I am still a member in Arab Commission for Human Rights (ACHR) and not the commission to protect dictators.”
He said he does not have any contact with Rifaat or Qadri Jamil or any regime figure.
Saleh Muslim, leader of the Democratic Union Party, a Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), and the most powerful member of the Kurdish opposition in the Syrian civil war
Qadri Jamil, one of the top leaders of the People’s Will Party and the Popular Front for Change and Liberation and a former member of the Assad government. Assad dismissed him last month from the post of deputy prime minister for economic affairs for acting without government permission when he met with U.S. officials in Geneva.
Ms Randa Kassis, president of the Coalition of Secular and Democratic Syrians and member of the Syrian National Council. She is also an anthropologist and journalist.
Syria troubleshooter Lakhdar Brahimi had hoped to hold the Geneva-2 peace conference this month.
But he said he was not able to announce a date, despite a day of meetings first with senior diplomats from the U.S. and Russia, then with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council — the UK, France and China — as well as Syria’s neighbors Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey.
Brahimi said he was still “striving” for a summit by the end of the year.
Attempts to set up a conference have been going on for months amid disputes over who should attend and its agenda.
The Syrian opposition has insisted President Assad should resign before any talks can take begin, but the government has rejected this.
The U.S. and Russia disagree on whether Syria’s key regional neighbor Iran should be present.
The idea of a conference was first mooted in May, and in September UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced a tentative date of mid-November after the Security Council passed a binding resolution on Syrian chemical weapons.
Meanwhile, aid agencies have warned that more than nine million Syrians, almost half the population, are now in need of humanitarian relief, and 6.5 million were now homeless within Syria.