The opposition groups were meeting in Saudi Arabia to seek a unified position ahead of UN-backed peace talks, after years in which Russian military intervention has helped the regime recapture all of Syria’s major cities.
Two days before the meeting, the leader of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) that has represented the opposition at previous peace talks quit abruptly, giving rise to speculation that Assad’s opponents might seek a softer stance.
HNC chief Riyad Hijab had been known as an uncompromising defender of the position that Assad must have no role in any political transition for Syria.
Hijab quit ahead of the meeting complaining that there were “attempts to lower the ceiling of the revolution and prolong the regime.”
However, a draft of the meeting’s final statement still included the demand that Assad leave office at the start of any transition, Al Arabiya television reported.
Factions opposed to Assad have been plagued by divisions throughout the maelstrom.
Participants in the Riyadh meeting include members of the Istanbul-based National Coalition as well as of rival Cairo- and Moscow-based groups seen as more favorable to the regime, and independent figures.
Qadri Jamil, who heads the Moscow-based group, on Wednesday announced he would not be attending the talks, citing what he said was the Syrian opposition’s inability to agree on “the bases and principles” of their stance at the Saudi summit.
The National Coalition meanwhile said Jamil had pulled out after “disagreement over an article on Bashar Assad stepping down and the start of a transitional phase” in Syria.
Syria’s six-year civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and created the world’s worst refugee crisis, driving more than 11 million people from their homes.
All efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution have failed, with the opposition demanding Assad leave power and the regime insisting he stay on.
For many years, Western and Arab countries backed the opposition demand that Assad leave power. However, since Russia joined the war on behalf of Assad’s government three years ago, Damascus has recaptured all of Syria’s major cities from anti-Assad fighters, making it increasingly clear that Assad’s opponents have no path to victory on the battlefield.
UN peace talks mediator Staffan de Mistura urged the opposition figures gathered at a five-star hotel in Riyadh to have the “hard discussions” necessary to reach a “common line.”
“I’m always optimistic... especially in this moment,” he said.
“A strong, unified team is a creative partner in Geneva and we need that, one who can actually explore more than one way to arrive to the goals that we need to have,” he said in opening remarks, referring to the next round of UN-sponsored talks.
De Mistura will meet Russia’s defense and foreign ministers on Thursday to discuss preparations for a new round of Geneva talks and a proposed congress on Syria in the Black Sea port of Sochi, according to Russian news agency RIA.
The Riyadh summit was open to more than 140 opposition figures representing a number of groups, including the HNC.
Russia said on Tuesday that the resignation of such “radically minded” Syrian opposition figures as HNC leader Hijab would help unite the disparate opposition factions around a more “realistic” platform.
Some opposition members had hinted that the final communique could drop any mention of Assad, softening the long-standing demand by the Riyadh-based opposition that the president have no role in any transition.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said the only solution to the conflict was through a consensus that would achieve the demands of the Syrian people.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he expected that the withdrawal of Hijab and other hard-liners in recent days would “help the Syria-based and foreign-based opposition unite on a constructive basis.”
Observers said it could clear the way for a new negotiating team that would water down some of the opposition’s longstanding demands, notably Assad’s immediate ouster.
His fate has been one of the chief obstacles to progress in peace talks, with the opposition demanding he step down at the start of any transition.
Ahead of the meeting, dozens of prominent civilian and armed opposition figures appealed to participants not to compromise on the “ouster of Bashar Assad and his gang.”
“No one should back down or quietly circumvent” it, they said in an online statement.
HNC member Yehya Al-Aridi acknowledged some participants, notably the Moscow platform, were more flexible on the president’s future.
But they “do not represent the choices of the revolution or the Syrian people,” Al-Aridi told AFP.
And Hisham Marwah, another National Coalition member, said his group’s “positions toward Assad have not changed.”
Speaking to AFP, Marwah said: “Whoever is betting on the Riyadh conference to legitimize the presence of Assad is delusional.”