U.S. presses Syrian opposition to attend talks

A protester places an opposition flag at a checkpoint controlled by Free Syrian Army fighters, during a protest asking for the release of prisoners held in the government jails in Aleppo. (Reuters)

Syrian opposition groups should seize the historic opportunity to attend peace talks in Geneva planned for Friday and go without preconditions, the U.S. State Department said on Wednesday.

“Factions of the opposition have an historic opportunity to go to Geneva and propose serious, practical ways to implement a ceasefire, humanitarian access and other confidence-building measures, and they should do so without preconditions,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

“We believe it should seize this opportunity to test the regime’s willingness and intentions, and expose before the entire world which parties are serious about a potential peaceful political transfer in Syria, and which are not,” he told a briefing.

Opposition groups adjourned a meeting in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday saying they were waiting for a U.N. response to their demands.

Preparations for the talks, already postponed from Monday to Friday, have been beset by problems, including a dispute over who should represent the opposition.

“The Syrian people are looking to this process and they need signs of hope that they are not destined to live in conflict indefinitely,” Toner said. He added: “There is an urgency to getting these talks started.”

Expectations were increasingly becoming low especially after one of the major opposition groups in the Syrian war said Wednesday it will only attend the imminent Geneva peace talks if the sieges in the country are lifted and other conditions are met, casting further uncertainty on the talks scheduled to begin in two days.

In a statement released at the end of daylong meetings in Saudi Arabia late Tuesday, the Higher Negotiating Committee (HNC) referred to the “necessity of realizing genuine improvements on the ground before starting in the negotiating process.”

The Saudi-backed committee is headed by Riyad Hijab, a former prime minister who defected to the opposition in 2012. It represents a coalition that includes the main political opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, and many of the major rebel factions fighting in Syria.

While the group left open the possibility of its eventual participation in the talks scheduled to begin Friday, it said it awaits a reply from the U.N. chief on its conditions.

On Wednesday, HNC resumed discussions in the Saudi capital to decide whether to join peace talks in Geneva.

Speaking to AFP at the venue in a luxury Riyadh hotel, HNC’s spokesman Monzer Makhous said the talks could last “perhaps all day.”

“There will be no comment until they finish,” he said.

hotel de la paix reuters

hotel de la paix reuters

However, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov was cited by Interfax news agency as saying on Wednesday that the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem will head a government delegation at peace talks with the country’s opposition in Geneva.

Earlier, the U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura described the start of a long term process of consultation between various parties to the conflict as not the actual peace negotiations between the warring sides.

The talks are meant to start a political process to end the conflict that began in 2011 as a largely peaceful uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s rule but escalated into an all-out war after a harsh state crackdown.

The plan calls for cease-fires in parallel to the talks, a new constitution and elections in a year and a half.

But there have been major tensions over who would be invited to the talks, and the opposition has demanded confidence-building measures from the government on humanitarian issues.

Kurds participation

The participation of Kurds is also further delaying the process for the talks to take place especially when Turkey rejected their inclusion.

Turkey, a major backer of the rebels, sees one of the main Syrian Kurdish group - the Democratic Union Party, or PYD and its YPG militia as branches of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK, which has waged a long insurgency against Ankara. Turkey has threatened to boycott the talks if the PYD is represented.

The opposition has also accused Russia, a key backer of the Syrian government, of trying to “dictate” who from the opposition would participate.

Moscow has insisted on PYD’s participation. PYD plays an important role in fighting ISIS group and is an essential part of any political settlement in Syria.

Only Syrians invited

Only Syrians have been invited to peace talks in Geneva, the UN said Wednesday, in an apparent contradiction to Turkey’s suggestion that it would be included.

On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara would “boycott” the talks set to open on Friday if PYD, which Ankara believes is linked to militants fighting inside Turkey, was at the negotiating table.

But Khawla Mattar, a spokeswoman for de Mistura said there was “no plan to invite” non-Syrians when asked about the possible inclusion of observer delegations from Turkey, Russia, the United States or France.

She declined to comment on which parties had been given invitations, which were issued by de Mistura on Tuesday.

‘No peace talks without Kurds’

The co-leader of the Syrian Democratic Council, Haytham Manna, on Wednesday he would not take part in peace talks in Geneva unless two Kurdish leaders, Saleh Muslim and Ilham Ahmed, were also invited to participate.

“I’ll go with my friends or not (at all). There is no compromise in this question,” Manna told Reuters a day after the U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan De Mistura, sent invitations to join the talks, without including the Kurdish leaders.

“We have one day and tomorrow perhaps also to negotiate all of these things with the Russians, the Americans and De Mistura’s staff. We’ll see if they accept our opinion, our view to have really a strong and representative delegation, we are ready to go.”

France: Kurds not invited

Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France-Culture radio on Wednesday that the PYD was not invited and acknowledged there are several hurdles facing the talks including who will be present.

“The PYD group, the Kurdish group, was causing the most problems, and Mr. de Mistura told me he had not sent them an invitation letter,” Fabius said.

He said the Riyadh group should be the primary negotiator for the rebels.

The Riyadh group is a broad coalition that includes several armed Islamic groups, such as the powerful Jaish al-Islam and ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham faction, which the Russian and Syrian governments consider as terrorist groups. It does not, however, include the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group or Nursa Front, two militant factions that control large areas of Syria and are not participating in peace talks.

Deciding who among Syria’s fractured opposition should attend the talks has become the main stumbling block to the first attempt at a peace negotiation in two years. There is no sign of an end to the war pitting a range of rebel groups against President Bashar al-Assad’s government after almost five years and more than 250,000 deaths.


(With agencies)

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:47 - GMT 06:47
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