Talk to Al Jazeera

Syrian opposition coordinator: ‘US policy is weak’

Riad Hijab, chief coordinator of the High Negotiations Committee, discusses the prospects for diplomatic deal in Syria.

More than five years into a brutal civil war, there is still no end in sight for the Syrian people.

Despite ceasefire agreements, conferences and diplomacy at the highest levels, there has been no progress towards creating a transitional government for the country.

This goal is about the only thing which Russia, the United States and the rest of the international community agree on.

The one who invited those terrorists is the chief terrorist, Bashar al-Assad. Therefore, he is fully aware that eradicating this terrorism means eradicating his own regime. That's why he is fuelling this terrorism through enticing hatred and sectarianism within the Syrian society. He uses all means of oppression, suppression, and genocide to fuel this terrorism and extremism because he knows well that his own existence is contingent upon the existence of that terrorism. That's why to us the first priority is to topple that regime and to eradicate terrorism.

by Dr Riad Hijab, chief coordinator of the High Negotiations Committee

But even if such a government were to be formed, what kind of Syria would then be built?

This is a tricky question because the various parties that make up the Syrian opposition have very different agendas beyond getting rid of President Bashar al-Assad.

The man now heading the negotiating committee on behalf of the opposition – Dr Riad Hijab – was himself at one point a member of Assad’s cabinet.

He was the country’s prime minister until he defected in August 2012.

All the aspirations of the opposition are now resting on his shoulders, and it is probably one of the most difficult burdens to carry.

Talk to Al Jazeera sat down with Hijab to discuss where things stand on Syria and why he accuses President Barack Obama of inaction.

He tells us about speaking to Assad “extensively about reform” and trying to establish a “Ministry of National Reconciliation” before his defection.

“Unfortunately, after we had taken the oath of office before Bashar al-Assad, the first thing he said was: ‘This is a war government.’ That was the beginning of our disagreement. We tried a lot with Bashar by talking about the importance of reform and that the road he was on was an impasse,” Hijab says.

“He always said it was a war that must be won. I told him if the war was with the people, then there can’t be a victory over the people. The will of the people was stronger and it would prevail. But he was adamant and willing to sacrifice everything, the whole Syria, to stay in power.

“He used the air force, artillery and tanks. And when I asked him, ‘What’s next? We can’t continue doing this’, he said he was going to use Scud missiles. At that point, I was certain that this person was delusional, and it was impossible for me to stay with that regime and continue working with Bashar al-Assad. I decided to leave Syria.”

Hijab discusses seeking a political solution and preserving state institutions as key to Syria moving from the Assad government “to a civil democratic state ruled by institutions and not ruled by chaos”.

The High Negotiations Committee (HNC) represents a large coalition of groups with very different interests and visions for Syria.

Hijab says the past few months have been dedicated to discussing a road map for the country’s future with the many groups and leaders who belong to the HNC.

“We reached a full detailed map for Syria’s future and the transitional period. We are working now on the rest of the ‘terms of reference’ documents, such as political parties’ law, an election law, a draft of a constitutional declaration and a social contract for the Syrian society,” he says.

Dr Riad Hijab, centre, was Syria's prime minister until he defected in August 2012 [File: Denis Balibouse/Reuters]
Dr Riad Hijab, centre, was Syria’s prime minister until he defected in August 2012 [File: Denis Balibouse/Reuters]

“We are working now on preparing all those issues in order not to fall into chaos. I did not speak about dissolving Syrian institutions, not even the military. I talked about restructuring these institutions, military and security apparatuses, on a professional basis.”

Hijab takes stock of US policy in Syria, which he says has been “hesitant and weak”, and of US President Barack Obama’s actions.

“Since July 2011, President Obama has said that Bashar al-Assad has lost legitimacy, that he has to leave because he used weapons and killed unarmed Syrian citizens. But what kinds of measures has Obama taken towards Bashar al-Assad? Nothing. He only talks and give speeches.”

Hijab also discusses the 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, near Damascus.

“Obama laid down a red line and said if al-Assad uses chemical weapons, there will be a response. What was Obama’s response? His response was that he took away the chemical weapons and left Bashar to kill Syrian people using poisonous gas, napalm, explosive barrels and all other different kinds of weapons.

“This policy which the US follows – a policy of containment, whether vis-a-vis Iran in connection with the nuclear deal, or Russia in an attempt to contain it through offering concessions – is what has made Russia and Iran keep doing what they do in Syria and elsewhere in the region.”

This policy of containment and of offering concessions, Hijab says, is “the policy that has made the situation get to this point of deterioration”.

You can talk to Al Jazeera too. Join our Twitter conversation as we talk to world leaders and alternative voices shaping our times. You can also share your views and keep up to date with our latest interviews on Facebook.