Syria's opposition umbrella group met on Sunday in a bid to name a prime minister-in-exile, a day after the Damascus government ruled out any calls for the ouster of Bashar al-Assad, AFP reports.
The Syrian National Coalition, recognized by many Western and Arab powers as the sole representative of the Syrian people, met in Istanbul to discuss the formation of a government-in-exile and who would eventually head it, an opposition official said.
“A proposal was made to name Riyad Hijab but it has run into much criticism,” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Hijab was Syria’s Prime Minister until August of last year, when he defected from the Assad regime and fled to Jordan.
The official told AFP that the talks, held behind closed doors, would resume Monday in Istanbul, and that the meeting would also prepare for an opposition forum in Paris on January 28 attended by Friends of Syria nations.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed the meeting in a radio interview.
Hijab was the highest-ranking official to have defected from Syria. He has worked closely with Turkish leaders to help restructure the fragmented Syrian opposition.
The opposition bloc has called for the establishment of an interim government with full executive powers in rebel-held areas inside Syria.
However, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem struck a defiant tone late Saturday, telling state television that those who demand the Assad removal want only bloodshed in the country.
“Nobody can afford to undermine the presidency -- it is unacceptable,” Muallem said.
“The U.S. continues to have the president's departure as a condition of regime change, ignoring the fact that the captain of a capsized ship does not jump into the first boat,” he added, according to AFP.
While Muallem reached out to “Nationalist” opposition forces to join a dialogue over joining a unity Cabinet and said that any rebel group could join the talks, he also set conditions.
Anyone joining the negotiations had to agree to reject foreign intervention, and there was to be no discussion about the future of Assad, he said.
The opposition in Syria has insisted on Assad's departure as a prerequisite for any negotiations to settle the 22-month conflict that has killed more than 60,000 people, according to United Nations figures.
Meanwhile, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs director, John Ging, pressed on with a visit to Syria to assess humanitarian needs in the war-ravaged country, where an estimated four million people are in need of emergency assistance.
Ging, in Syria since Friday, was received on Sunday by Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad and then travelled to Homs.