Saudi Arabia sends invitations to Syria opposition conference

Saudi Arabia sends invitations to Syria opposition conference
3 min read
01 December, 2015
A conference for the Syrian opposition sponsored by Saudi Arabia will be held in Abha, in the south-west of the kingdom, on December 11-12, sources have told al-Araby al-Jadeed.
SNC President Khaled Khoja recently welcomed Saudi Arabia's efforts for unifying Syria's opposition groups [AFP]

A Saudi-sponsored conference meant to unify as many Syrian political and armed opposition factions as possible around a common agenda is convening in Abha within ten days, ahead of forthcoming negotiations with the Syrian regime, slated for January 1, 2016.

Earlier reports had suggested Riyadh would push for the opposition Syrian National Coalition, the most prominent political opposition body, to lead the Syrian opposition's negotiating delegation to-be.

However, the invitation Saudi Arabia has now sent to the SNC to the conference reportedly reduced the number of representatives allocated to attend the opposition meeting from the SNC's requested 31 to 20.

This has reportedly caused some consternation among SNC members, who have called an urgent meeting to discuss the invitation and choose 20 representatives for the putative Abha conference.

A Saudi representative had told the SNC it had the full support of the kingdom, which is in favour of the opposition grouping leading the meetings in Riyadh, said Nagham al-Ghadri, SNC vice president.

Only the SNC and the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), another major Syrian political opposition group, would be invited in that capacity.

The rest of the opposition figures, Ghadri pointed out, would be invited to Abha in their personal capacities.

Ghadri said in addition to representatives from opposition factions, other figures including clerics would be invited, to represent as broad a segment of the Syrian people as possible.

"The main goal of the meetings in Riyadh [Abha] would be to produce a consensual document based on the Geneva Communique, and not to establish a new political body," the SNC vice president added.

Rebel groups attending

Meanwhile, a senior official in the General Staff of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella group for moderate Syrian rebel factions, said no official invitation has been sent yet to the conference.

However, some rebel figures have reportedly received requests from Riyadh to send copies of their passports to process their visas.

The same source says there is anxiety in the rebel camp as well, mainly due to leaks suggesting invitations would be extended to rebel figures known in the media, but who have no strong influence on the ground.

When al-Araby al-Jadeed contacted Islam Alloush, spokesperson for rebel faction Jaish al-Islam, he declined to specify his group's position on the conference "before all arrangements are completed first".

Haytham al-Manna invited

One of the controversial figures confirmed to attend will be Haytham Manna, the opposition figure who had split from the NCC.

But to many in the opposition, Manna's political positions have been low-key compared to those of the SNC and Saudi Arabia.

However, a source in the SNC who asked not to be named says Manna has since changed his position to keep up with developments.

Recently, Manna said in press remarks that Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham have proven themselves as "patriotic" Syrian factions, a departure from previous attitudes, the source claimed.

From the NCC side, Saleh al-Nabwani told al-Araby al-Jadeed several names have been agreed to take part at the Abha meeting, but pointed out that an official invitation is yet to come from Riyadh.

Nabwani said the NCC would carry to Riyadh its own roadmap, in addition to the Geneva Communique and the Vienna Plan, for negotiations with the Syrian regime, the ultimate goal being to establish a transitional government with full powers without any role for Assad.

Last week, al-Araby al-Jadeed reported a Saudi source had told the SNC that any figure or faction that does not abide by the Geneva Communique, requiring Assad to step down, would not be invited to the conference.

Up to 65 Syrian figures could be invited to Abha, reportedly broken down to 20 SNC figures, 7 from the NCC, 15 from the rebel factions and the rest independent figures.

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Read more: Vienna peace process: opportunities and challenges for Syrian opposition