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Syrian opposition will attend Geneva peace talks

Main Syrian opposition coalition said it will attend U.N.-brokered talks in Geneva after receiving United Nations guarantees

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The main Syrian opposition group has agreed to participate in the Geneva-based Syrian peace talks after receiving assurances from the United Nations on humanitarian issues, Al Arabiya News' sister channel al-Hadath reported Friday.

The main Syrian opposition group, known as the Higher Negotiating Committee, or HNC, said it was boycotting the talks until it received an official response from the United Nations about a list of concerns.

"The High Negotiations Committee (HNC) decided to participate in the Geneva talks after receiving American and United Nations guarantees," al-Hadath said.

A member of the HNC, Farah Atassi, said the delegation is coming "not to negotiate" but to talk to U.N. officials after receiving reassurances from the organization.

She did not say how many members would come, adding only that they will arrive Saturday.

Atassi spoke at a Geneva hotel not far from the U.N. offices where U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura and Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar Ja'afari were meeting.

The United Nation's Syria envoy said he had "good reason to believe" that the main Syrian opposition group would join the Geneva peace talks Sunday.

Staffan de Mistura said he was still waiting for "formal indication" that the opposition coalition will attend the talks.

De Mistura spoke to journalists at the U.N. headquarters after meeting with the Syrian government delegation. The head of the government delegation, Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar Ja'afari, walked out of that meeting without commenting to the waiting press corps.

The HNC's decision was welcomed by Saudi Arabia's foreign ministry on Friday in a statement carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

"The kingdom welcomes the decision taken by the High Negotiations Committee of the Syrian revolutionary and opposition forces in Riyadh to take part in the Geneva negotiations," the ministry said.

The indirect talks are part of a process outlined in a U.N. resolution last month that envisages an 18-month timetable for a political transition in Syria, including the drafting of a new constitution and elections.

A television crew sets up ahead of the start of Syrian talks in front of the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva. (Reuters)
A television crew sets up ahead of the start of Syrian talks in front of the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva. (Reuters)

The opposition is facing ongoing disputes over which parties will attend and has come under criticism for including the militant Army of Islam group that controls wide areas near Damascus and is considered a terrorist organization by the Syrian government and Russia.

The HNC said earlier it was still waiting for an official response from the United Nations about a list of concerns.

Ahmad Ramadan, a senior official with the Syrian National Coalition, which is part of the HNC, said the opposition would boycott the talks until it received assurances on the implementation of U.N. Security Council resolutions on lifting the sieges on rebel held areas and halting bombardment of civilians in Syria.

"There cannot be any negotiations as long as the humanitarian issues have not been discussed or implemented," he said.

Basma Kodmani, a member of the opposition's negotiating team, said the HNC was studying whether their delegation would come to Geneva to raise these concerns with the U.N. officials or stay in Saudi Arabia where they can raise them from a distance.

Ramadan said that de Mistura sent a letter on Thursday to the head of the HNC, Riad Hijab, which was deemed unsatisfactory. He said the U.N. envoy wrote that the opposition's demands were reasonable and that humanitarian issues should be "above negotiations," but that he was powerless to implement them himself, adding that negotiations were the best way to force everyone to implement those resolutions.

New humanitarian aid for Syria infographic
New humanitarian aid for Syria infographic

Opposition figures from outside the HNC are in Geneva but they were invited as advisers. The HNC is supposed to be the main opposition group in the talks.

On Thursday, Hijab told the Al-Arabiya News Channel that they might come to Geneva but will not enter the negotiations rooms unless their demands are met.

"Those who cannot achieve humanitarian demands of the Syrian people will not be able to achieve political transition in Syria," Hijab said.

A Western diplomat in close contact with the SNC said in Geneva that "their (HNC) main message to us has been while we are under sustained attack by Russia and the regime and other states and militants and other groups we cannot justify to Syrians why we are going."

"They understand the risk of not attending any process which has international support or oversight, but at the same time they are acutely aware of the risk of going to negotiations which is not on terms favorable to them or their communities," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the opposition.

"We tell them the reason to come here is not to hand the Assad regime a propaganda victory," he said.

De Mistura said Thursday that the peace talks he plans to launch in Geneva "in the next few days" are an opportunity not to be missed.

(with Reuters and the Associated Press)