Moscow and Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Syrian opposition remains undecided over participation in talks organized by Russia at the end of this month, with a key Syria-based group saying it has yet to make up its mind on attending the preliminary talks that are aimed at starting a new peace process.
Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, Majid Habbo, the secretary of the National Coordination Committee (NCC), a Syrian-based opposition bloc, said his group will defer the decision until Moscow responds to a set of demands it has issued.
He said: “The final position of the [NCC] members will be announced after January 16, the date set for receiving the Russian response to our demands, which includes our wish that invitations [to the talks] be political, not personal, and that there will be guarantees for the success of the conference.”
Unlike the Syrian National Coalition—a prominent umbrella organization of Syrian exile groups—which warned its members that attending the talks would undermine their legitimacy, the NCC will ultimately leave the decision up to its members, Habbo added.
Russia, a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, issued invitations to as many as 30 opposition figures earlier this month to attend the talks scheduled to take place between January 26 and 28. Subsequent discussions involving Syrian government representatives are due to be held on January 29, the final day of the talks.
Habbo predicted that the list of invitees will be expanded, adding that “the conference agenda will be open, with no red lines and everything open to discussion.”
He said: “This is what we were told by the Russians, who emphasized they would be a neutral side and would not demand any party offer any kind of compromise before sitting at the negotiating table.”
At least four NCC figures have been invited to the talks, while as many as five members of the Coalition who received invitations said it was unlikely they would attend.
The only circumstances in which the Coalition would meet with representatives of the Syrian government would be “within the framework of a negotiation process that leads to a peaceful transfer of power and the formation of an interim body with full executive powers,” said the new leader of the Coalition, Khaled Khoja, upon his election earlier this month.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that opposition figures unwilling to take part in the Moscow talks risked losing any influence over the future course of any peace talks over the Syrian crisis.
“Those who decide not to take part in this event, they will lose in terms of their positions in the process of peace talks as a whole,” he told reporters from Moscow.
For his part, US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday from Geneva he hoped “that the Russian efforts could be helpful.”
Previous talks between government and opposition officials have failed to bring an end to a devastating conflict in Syria which will enter its fifth year in March. UN peace efforts stalled in January 2014 following the Geneva II conference.
Paula Astih contributed reporting from Beirut.