Saudi Arabia, a staunch backer of Syria’s opposition, on Thursday told Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down or face forcible removal from power.
The warning was made by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir as Syria’s disparate opposition groups were meeting in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, to discuss al-Assad’s future role and try to build a united front.
“Al-Assad will leave with no doubt either by a political solution, which can be easier for all, or he will leave through a military solution because he is no longer wanted by the Syrian people”, al-Jubeir said in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia is a financial and diplomatic backer of the Syrian opposition fighting to oust al-Assad.
The Western-backed opposition and their armed rebels have repeatedly said there would be no role for al-Assad in the future of Syria.
But al-Assad’s two close allies, Russia and Iran, said his political fate should be up to Syrians to decide.
Syria’s moderate opposition factions have been weakened by divisions, allowing jihadist rebels such as Islamic State to establish a foothold in the country.
The Riyadh talks, which started on Wednesday, come ahead of proposed peace negotiations between the Syrian opposition and al-Assad’s government.
The participants in the Riyadh gathering agreed on forming a 23-member body to prepare for negotiations with al-Assad’s regime, an opposition source said.
The conference is also discussing behind closed doors the formation of a unified delegation to represent the opposition at the negotiations planned for January 2016, the source said on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, said the Syrian opposition factions had made progress in their talks.
“The meeting in Saudi Arabia appears to be very constructive at this point, and we need to wait for the results of that conference”, Kerry said in Paris.
“But I think everybody is moving in the direction that they want to rapidly try to get to a political process and get it underway under the UN auspices.
“So we’ve made progress, but we have some tough issues still to get over.”
However, in a sign of disunity, Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham withdrew from the Riyadh talks, citing under-representation at the gathering.
“Our national and religious duties oblige our withdrawal from the conference because the revolutionary groups were not given their real representation”, the group said in a statement.
More than 100 opposition representatives ranging from secularist politicians tolerated by al-Assad’s regime to hard-line Islamist rebels are attending the Riyadh conference.
The meeting comes amid international pressure on the opposition to unify their ranks and negotiate with al-Assad’s government to reach a political solution to the country’s conflict, now in its fifth year.