Key Syrian opposition group pulls out of Riyadh talks

Ahrar al-Sham withdraws from meeting aimed at fostering unity among rebels, saying its role has been minimised.

A man rides a bicycle past a poster depicting Syria''s President Bashar al-Assad near the new clock square in the old city of Homs
More than 250,000 people have been killed over the past five years during Syria's civil war [Omar Sanadiki/Reuters]

A key Syrian opposition group, Ahrar al-Sham, has withdrawn from a Saudi Arabia-hosted conference to try to unite the factions fighting against the Syrian government before potential talks with representatives of President Bashar al-Assad.

The armed rebel group announced it was quitting the three-day Riyadh-based talks on Thursday because the meeting “had given top key roles to the National Coordination Committee and other figures who are considered supporters of the regime.”

Ahrar al-Sham, a faction which  Russia does not want to negotiate with,  said in a statement that the conference “did not consider some of the key issues they, and other groups, wished to include in the discussions and that [the organisers] refused to emphasise the Muslim identity of our Muslim [Syrian] people.”

READ MORE: Saudi Arabia says Assad must resign or be forced from power

The statement added: “As we withdraw from the conference, we are calling on other Mujahedeen and revolutionary groups to make a historic stance on the side of their religion, nation and people.

“[Other groups] must take into consideration the sacrifices that were made to achieve their goals.”

The talks, which began on Tuesday, are seen as the most serious effort yet to unify the opposition groups, a step considered vital to peace talks sought by world powers but which has angered Iran.

The Riyadh meeting was meant to bring as ” broad a cross-section of Syrian opposition groups as possible” t o the table, according to  Adel Al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister.

Al Jazeera correspondent Omar al-Saleh said that Ahrar al-Sham’s exit “throws the whole process into doubt, as it is one of the biggest groups fighting the regime in Syria” and has some “powerful regional backers”.

Our correspondent added that Ahrar al-Sham, which has a controversial  record in terms of alleged human rights abuses and links to al-Qaeda, has been described as a “radical” and “sometimes even a terrorism” group by Russian and Iranian officials.

However, Marwan Kabalan , a Syrian political analyst, said that it was naive to expect the opposition to unite in such little time.

“I don’t think anybody thought It would be easy in the first place,” he told Al Jazeera. “The groups present have differing ideological  backgrounds. Some are secular, some are religious, and they have different ideas on what the political solution could be. Some of the groups operate inside Syria, while others work outside. They also don’t all agree on when and how [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad should go.

“They have been unable to reconcile their differences over the past five years. No one expected them to do that in the past 24 hours.”

Source: Al Jazeera