Top Syria opponent seeks to unite dissidents
Syria's exiled opposition chief told AFP he wants to pull together the country's divided dissidents to end the nearly five-year bloodbath, as he met the French president for the first time Thursday.
Khaled Khoja, who has headed the main Syrian National Coalition since January, said President Bashar al-Assad's ouster should not be a pre-condition to enter into a new round of talks with the regime.
Softening the coalition's previous refusal to work with Damascus-tolerated opposition groups, 50-year-old Khoja said he wants "a common ground" with other dissidents, and to "establish a new framework for the Syrian opposition."
The interview comes less than a week after the exiled coalition met in Paris with the domestic National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC).
For the first time in Syria's war, the two groups agreed on a draft roadmap for future negotiations with Assad's regime.
"We insist on the goal of toppling Assad and the security services... It is not necessary to have these conditions at the beginning of the process, but it is... necessary to end the process with a new regime and a new free Syria," he said.
He also said that while the opposition's main demand is Assad's ouster, it wants to "preserve the Syrian state".
"Unfortunately, the state is being demolished by the regime. Half of the hospitals have been demolished. More than half the schools have been demolished," said Khoja, who has lived in Turkey since the 1980s, after being imprisoned by the regime twice over his political activism.
- 'Assad main cause of suffering' -
After meeting Khoja, French President Francois Hollande said Assad is "the main cause of his people's suffering, and for the rise of terrorist groups in Syria".
"He is therefore not a credible interlocutor to fight against Daesh and prepare Syria's future," Hollande said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State (IS) group.
Khoja meanwhile told reporters after the meeting that a UN plan to " freeze" the fighting in the main northern Syrian city of Aleppo is "extremely difficult" to implement because "the regime does not respect its commitments".
UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura in October unveiled the proposal to suspend fighting in Aleppo but violence in the country's former commercial capital has raged on.
On Thursday, at least 18 civilians were killed in a single regime barrel bomb attack against an opposition-held part of the city.
The National Coalition was established in Doha in 2012. It is recognised by dozens of states and organisations as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
It has entered into two failed rounds of negotiations with the regime, and has faced frequent accusations of being disconnected from the situation inside Syria.
- 'Western allies just watched' -
Khoja blamed Assad for the rise of jihadists such as the brutal IS group, which is known for its horrific execution videos and mass kidnappings of minority groups in Syria and Iraq.
"The roots of terror," he said, are "Bashar's intelligence services."
Khoja also said the West should have done more to stop Assad early on in the conflict in order to stem the rise of jihadist groups.
"Our Western friends have been informed since the end of 2011 that Al-Qaeda (members) were being released from (regime) jails," he said.
"Unfortunately, our Western allies just watched... and we ended up where we are now, fighting ISIS, the most horrible terrorist organisation in history," he added, using another acronym for IS.
Syrian opposition groups and activists have frequently accused Damascus of allowing the spread of jihadist groups such as IS, as a way to give credence to its claim that there was never a true pro-democracy movement seeking Assad's ouster.
The conflict, which has killed 210,000 people and forced half the population to flee their homes, began as a peaceful uprising in March 2011, but later became a savage war after Assad unleashed a crackdown against dissent.
© 2015 AFP