Al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate rejected the outcome of a Saudi-hosted conference of Syrian opposition figures which agreed to negotiate with the Damascus government, branding it a “plot”.
“It is a plot, not a conference. Such… gatherings must be foiled,” Al-Nusra Front chief Abu Mohamed al-Jolani said in an interview to four Arab journalists. The interview was broadcast by Orient News, a Dubai-based Syrian opposition television channel.
Syria’s main political and armed opposition groups agreed at unprecedented talks on Thursday to negotiate with President Bashar al-Assad’s government, but also insisted that he step down at the start of any political transition.
“The participants are ready to negotiate with representatives of the Syrian regime…within a specific timeframe that would be agreed on with the United Nations,” participants said in a statement.
Jolani accused rebel fighters who attended the two-day conference in Saudi Arabia of “treason” and a betrayal of “the youths who have sacrificed their blood” in Syria’s nearly five-year war.
Among the groups attending the start of the Saudi talks on Wednesday was Ahrar al-Sham, one of Syria’s main rebel groups which is allied with Al-Nusra Front.
But on Thursday Ahrar al-Sham announced it had withdrawn from the gathering, saying this was because of “the fundamental role… given to personalities linked to the regime”.
But sources inside the talks and Western diplomats said Ahrar al-Sham subsequently signed on to the opposition agreement.
The Saudi meeting came after top diplomats from 17 countries, including backers and opponents of Assad’s government, agreed last month in Vienna on a roadmap for the Syrian conflict.
This would see a transitional government set up within six months and elections within 18 months, and calls for negotiations between the opposition and the government by 1 January.
Saudi’s King Salman had previously reiterated his country’s support to bring stability and an end to Syria’s conflict.
“I would like to tell you that Syria is dear to us and our relations with Syria are historical and the Syrian and welfare of the Syrian brethren is important to us,” the king told the opposition leaders when they met late Thursday.
In Saturday’s television interview, the Al-Nusra Front chief said that rebels who attended the Saudi talks faced “pressure” and that this was “unjustified”.
He also said that “even if they agreed” to the statement issued in the Saudi capital “they do not have the power to implement it on the ground”.
Jolani did not indicate whether his group would sever ties with al-Qaeda. The Nusra Front declared allegiance to Ayman Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda in 2013. After the Islamic State group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi tried to reintegrate Nusra within IS, which was originally its subsidiary, Jolani declared war on the group.
More than 250,000 people have been killed and millions forced from their homes since the Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011 with anti-government protests.