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Syrian opposition rules out dialogue with Assad in Moscow

Khoja will only engage in 'negotiating framework intended to achieve a peaceful transition of power and the formation of a transitional body'
An image grab of Khaled Khoja, head of Syria's opposition National Coalition (YouTube)

The newly elected head of Syria's key opposition National Coalition on Monday ruled out taking part in a Russian bid for new talks with the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Moscow.

Khaled Khoja, who was elected early on Monday to head the opposition grouping, said Moscow's proposal was impossible.

"The dialogue with the regime that Moscow is calling for is out of the question," he said at a news conference in Istanbul, where the Coalition is based.

"We can't sit at the same table as the regime... except in a negotiating framework intended to achieve a peaceful transition of power and the formation of a transitional body with full powers," he said, in a reference to the Geneva-1 talks.

"Dialogue with the regime is not in the agenda of the Syrian National Coalition nor other opposition groups," said Khoja.

Russia, a key ally of Assad, has invited 28 opposition figures, including members of the tolerated domestic opposition as well as individual Coalition members, to Moscow later this month.

Among them are Hadi al-Bahra, whom Khoja succeeded on Monday, and two other previous Coalition chiefs, Moaz al-Khatib and Abdel Basset Sida.

Khoja said that the Syrian National Coalition as an organization was not invited to the planned Moscow talks, but that the Kremlin had just invited some individual opposition figures.  

The Syrian National Coalition is the largest wing of the Syrian opposition.

By 2013, at least 20 states and international organizations, including, Turkey, the EU, the US and the Arab League, had recognized the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Several opposition groups are expected to meet in Cairo this month to form a unified front, according to opposition sources, although a timetable and list of participants has not been made public.

Khoja's comments were the first since he was elected with backing from both secular and Islamist blocs.

He is the first member of the Turkmen minority elected to the post and is seen as more independent than his predecessor, who had strong ties to Saudi Arabia.

Khoja – who secured 56 votes, six more than Hariri - has lived in exile in Turkey for decades, after leaving Syria in the 1980s following two stints in prison.

But despite his ties to Turkey, his candidacy was not backed by Ankara, which was reportedly in favour of the Brotherhood-backed Nasr Hariri.

Khoja has a history of opposition activism, and was a founding member of the Syrian National Council, a key component of the coalition.

He served as the National Coalition's representative in Turkey before being elected president.

Born in Damascus in 1965, Khoja studied first in Libya after going into exile before settling in Turkey. He graduated in medicine from the University of Izmir in 1994.