BEIRUT: The Syrian National Coalition strongly rejects President Bashar Assad’s involvement in any transitional period in Syria and it will be adamant on this issue at an upcoming meeting between the regime and the opposition, the SNC vice president told The Daily Star.
In a wide-ranging interview, Hisham Marwa spoke about the SNC’s expectations from future talks and its position on Assad’s role in a transitional period. He also touched on the current Iranian role in Syrian diplomacy and the Russian intervention in Syria and its results.
United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said last week that the U.N. was prepared to “start immediately” the process of assembling together representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition for talks. The meeting is expected to take place in Vienna this weekend.
This latest move follows talks between world and regional powers in Vienna late last month to discuss a solution to the war in Syria. The meeting failed to reach an agreement on the fate of Assad, a sticking point at the heart of the discussions.
Marwa asserted that while the opposition accepts the regime’s representation in the negotiations phase, it would not accept Assad’s presence in the transitional period.
“There is no place for Assad in the transitional phase or else the process toward a political solution will certainly fail. He needs to leave after the negotiations. The rebels fighting him in Syria will not agree to this,” Marwa said.
Marwa stressed that when it comes to the transfer of power, the SNC, the main Syrian opposition group, supports the road map to peace outlined in 2012’s Geneva communiqué, which calls for the creation of a consensual transitional government, paving the way to elections.
“The Geneva communiqué will be a reference to the SNC in any future negotiations,” he added.
He added that the Syrian people could not accept a political solution that would reproduce the current regime, therefore no consensual transitional government can be formed with Assad’s involvement.
Marwa insisted that not only should Assad have no part in the transition, but the Syrian president should leave the country, as his presence would hinder any future government.
“In the transitional period there cannot be two ruling powers,” Marwa said.
He pointed to the situation in Yemen, where troops loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh are currently battling the internationally recognized government. “Ali Abdullah Saleh stayed in Yemen after he was toppled and Yemen crumbled. We do not want this scenario in Syria.”
The joint statement issued after last month’s Vienna talks is based on the Geneva communiqué, which is a positive step according to Marwa, even though it lacked the steps for the transitional period and the process of governance.
Marwa insisted that the SNC is ready to participate in future negotiations and to continue what was started in Geneva. “It should be clear that we do not want consultations. We want to negotiate with guarantees under international auspices.”
However, he said that despite its presence at last month’s peace talks in Vienna, Iran, and its ally the regime, are not serious about a transitional period or a political settlement. “The regime foiled the last round of negotiations and we have no doubt that it is still not interested in a political solution, and neither is Iran.”
Marwa added that this can be seen in the statements of Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad during his visit to Tehran last week.
Mekdad said that the Syrian government is pursuing an expanded government and insisted that there would be no discussion of a transition period.
“We will not speak about a transition phase and those talking about this issue are unaware of Syrian realities,” Mekdad was quoted as saying by Iranian news agency, ISNA.
Marwa said that Iran remains a strong influence on events in Syria and a key power on the side of Assad, despite the Russian military intervention in the conflict.
“Iran is very present and is playing the role that it wants to play.”
He also indicated that future talks could succeed if there was a real international will and pressure on Assad.
When asked about the Russian military campaign in Syria, which was launched on Sep. 30, Marwa said that the objective behind the intervention is political and it aims at strengthening Assad and bolstering his army on the ground.
“This surely affects Assad’s political performance in any negotiations. The military is always linked to politics.”
The SNC vice president expects Assad to impede the negotiations as long as his military position on the ground is strong. He added that the Syrian president “has all the means to thwart the negotiations at any given moment, including raising the anti-terrorism banner.”
Yet Marwa noted that although the regime’s army has improved with Russia’s military backing, the reality on the ground shows that despite intense Russian airstrikes there is still no significant advancement by the Assad’s forces on the ground. “The areas seized by Assad’s forces are very limited because the rebel forces have been gaining ground in other areas. Their resistance has been legendary,” Marwa said.
He added that if the rebels keep holding their ground with this amount of tenacity, the Russian campaign would not yield to anything, but “at the same time, friendly states should offer them [the rebels] real support.”
According to Marwa, the Russians do not care about fighting ISIS, they are focused, instead, on the moderate opposition.
“ISIS is not in their plans at the moment. The moderate opposition is the real danger to Assad and it represents an alternative to his regime. That is the reason why the Russians are concentrating [their strikes] on moderate rebels and not on ISIS.”
He supported his assertion by saying, “[In the past week] ISIS gained ground in a number of areas but we did not see any response [from the regime and it’s allies].”
Marwa added that the Russians are clinging to Assad because their interest is linked to him.
“It is not an issue of fighting terrorism nor is it an issue of respecting the international law. It is simply a matter of regional and international interests.”