High Negotiations Committee (HNC)
The High Negotiations Committee is a Saudi-backed coalition of Syrian opposition groups. The High Negotiations Committee (HNC) was created in Saudi Arabia in December 2015 and includes representatives of some groups considered to be terrorist organizations by Syria and Russia, and a delegation created following talks in Moscow and Cairo.
Regional politica and geopolitics did not favor much beyond episodic local cease-fires in a conflict that had killed an estimated 300,000 people, reduced much of Syria to rubble, and created millions of refugees. Instead, the Russian-backed campaign to recapture more territory for Assad escalated, and by early 2016 Assad, emboldened by heavy Russian airstrikes against his enemies, was feeling more confident in his position and thus less inclined to negotiate.
The final statement adopted at the December 2015 meeting laid out the principles for the negotiations with Assad. Among them was “faith in the civilian nature of the Syrian state and its sovereignty over all of Syria’s territory, on the basis of administrative decentralization.” The document expressed commitment to “a democratic mechanism through a pluralistic system that represents all segments of the Syrian people, men and women, without discrimination or exclusion on a religious, sectarian, or ethnic basis,” organized by way of “free and fair elections.”
The delegates promised to “work to preserve the institutions of the Syrian state, although it will be necessary to reorganize the structure and formation of its military and security institutions.” There would be a state monopoly on armed force. They condemned terrorism and stressed their refusal of “the presence of any foreign fighters.”
The coalition is more complex than its name indicates. The United Nations never planned to invite groups that are widely regarded as terrorist organizations, like the Islamic State and the Nusra Front. The High Negotiations Committee included groups that key Assad backers Russia and Iran regard as terrorists. It also excludes others, such as the Kurds, who have done most of the fighting against ISIS.
The Russians sought to have Syrians participate who had not resorted to violence against what remained of the Syrian state. Assad's opponents regard these people as sell-outs. The powerful hard-line Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham attended the talks in Riyadh in December 2015 where the High Negotiations Committee was formed, but then walked out, saying the delegation was too close to the Assad government. Russia had publicly opposed allowing the group and another, the Army of Islam, to take part in talks, though Jaysh al-Islam did become part of the HNC.
Among those left out of the Riyadh meeting was Syria’s predominately Kurdish party. Turkey rejected participation by the Kurds, which it alleges are part of the PKK, which Turkey has fought for decades and considers a terrorist organization.
In 2014 talks in Geneva eventually fell apart, with the Syrian opposition represented by exile groups that had little influence over events on the ground. The Syrian government argued that the opposition delegates held no sway with insurgents on the battlefield. This time, armed groups, including both moderate factions and some hard-line Islamists, were among those talking for the opposition.
The coordinator is Riad Hijab, who was prime minister of Syria for two months before defecting to the opposition in 2012. Hijab is affiliated with the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, which represented the opposition in the abortive Geneva II talks.
The chief negotiator and the spokesperson for the High Negotiations Committee was Salem Muslet. He worked as deputy director for the Gulf Research Center in United Arab Emirates from 1998-2011 (the year the Syrian revolt started), is the vice president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, which receives weapons and funding from a list of nations including the US, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
Mohammed Alloush, the chief negotiator, represented Jaysh al-Islam [Army of Islam] a large Islamist faction powerful in the rebel-held outskirts of Damascus. One of the more brutal Sunni Salafist rebel groups operating inside Syria, it receives funding, arms and other support from Saudi Arabia.
Asaad al-Zoubi, a former army colonel, now leads the Free Syrian Army in southern Syria. The FSA had struggled despite receiving American support, while hard-line Islamist factions have become more powerful.
The HNC contained 33 members, about one-third representing armed factions, and selected a negotiating team of 15 people to face the Assad government at talks to begin in early 2016. The participants in the December 2015 meeting agreed on 30 delegates who will attend planned Syria peace talks in Geneva. This included 9 members from the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, 5 from The National Coordination Body (Domestic Opposition), 10 from rebel factions, and 6 independent opposition figures.
Of the 33 Commission members, nine were from the National Coalition, Syria’s main alliance of politicians in exile. This included current National Coalition President Khaled Khoja, his predecessor George Sabra, veteran dissidents like Riad Seif and Soheir al-Atassi, Mohammed Farouq Teifour of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Kurdish politician Abdelhakim Bashar, and former Syrian prime minister Riad Hejab.
Five were from the National Coalition’s main rival, the much smaller and more moderate National Coordination Body. Among these were Safwan Akkash, a communist politician who served as the group’s secretary, and long-time Nasserite dissidents Mohammed Hejazi and Ahmed al-Esrawi.
Nine others were listed as independents, though many of them were actually linked to political groups. These included Louai Hussein, an Alawite leftist intellectual and former prisoner of conscience, who heads the Building the Syrian State Movement, a small pacifist group. Ahmed al-Jarba, a former National Coalition president, had strong ties to Saudi Arabia.
A final eleven members were drawn from the armed rebel groups, a number that was up from six when the conference began. The armed rebels at the meeting — various Free Syrian Army groups, Ahrar al-Sham, the Islam Army, Ajnad al-Sham, and others — had demanded half of the seats on the High Negotiations Committee. They got a third instead.
It remained somewhat unclear how the seats allocated t the armed groups were to be distributed. Some names that were mentioned included Mohammed Alloush of the Islam Army and Labib Nahhas, the Ahrar al-Sham delegate. There were also representatives of various Free Syrian Army factions, including Bashir Menla of the Jabal Turkman Battalion and Hassan Hajj Ali of the Suqour al-Jabal Brigade.
Some of the names in the list are
- Abbas Habib (dCouncil of Direction of Syrian Tribes),
- Kadri Jamil (Change and Liberation Front)
- Mazen Magrebia (Front for Change and Liberation)
- Majed Habbo (movement Kamh)
- Randa Kassis (Movement for a Pluralist Society)
- Jihad Makdessi (Cairo Group)
- Fateh Jamous (Movement for a Peaceful Policy Change)
- Haitham Mannaa (co-president, Syrian Democracy Council)
- Salim Herbek (independent)
- Namroud Suleiman (independent)
George Sabra, a Christian dissident, was also named to the council’s negotiating team. The name of Mohammed Allouche, brother of the head of Islamist Zehran killed last December and negotiator appointed by the groups supported by Saudi Arabia does not appear, either, on this first official list.
Ahrar al-Sham, the most powerful and most hawkish Islamist armed group, had already criticized the inclusion of Russia-friendly groups like the National Coordination Body. It rejected what it saw as a High Negotiations Committee stacked with anti-Islamist, doveish, and borderline regime-friendly factions, and a watered down and secular-leaning statement. Ahrar al-Sham was under pressure from their Nusra Front allies to abandon all peace talks.
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