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Middle East

Kerry: Make haste in Syria transition

Vehicles burning following an explosion in the town of Darkush, in Idlib province, according to to the Syrian observatory for human rights, killing and wounding several people, October 14, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/HO)

LONDON/BEIRUT: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that an international conference to establish a Syrian transitional government must be organized urgently and held as soon as possible, hinting that President Bashar Assad would have no role in a transitional phase.

“There has to be a transition government, there has to be a new governing entity in Syria in order to permit the possibility of peace,” Kerry said. He said it was imperative to get the so-called “Geneva II” conference organized by a mid-November target the United Nations has set.

Kerry and U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi spoke to reporters after meeting at the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Britain.

“There can be, there will be, a political solution if everyone gets together and works for it,” Brahimi said. “Very soon we have to set a precise date.”

Kerry said President Bashar Assad “has lost the legitimacy to be able to be a cohesive force that could bring people together.”

The planned Geneva II conference is aimed at implementing an agreement hammered out last year that calls for the establishment of a transitional government that would run Syria and prepare it for democratic elections.

Brahimi said he will travel to the Middle East after this week’s Eid al-Adha holiday to see representatives of all sides to try to plan and set a specific date for the meeting.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov urged Washington to bring the opposition to the talks proposed for mid-November.

His call came a day after the Syrian National Council, a key component of the National Coalition, ruled out attending any Geneva peace talks, and said it would quit the umbrella group if it participated.

“We very much expect our American partners and other countries, which not only have influence on various opposition groups but also ... encourage these opposition groups to continue fighting, to realize their responsibility for creating conditions for performing their share of the work for convening Geneva II,” Lavrov said.

George Sabra, the president of the Syrian National Council, said that it was impossible to carry out negotiations given the suffering of people on the ground.

Lavrov said that Sabra’s statement highlighted the urgency of holding the conference. “The main obstacle on this path remains our partners’ inability to make the Syrian opposition, which they are looking after, go to Geneva and sit at the negotiating table with the government,” he said.

By contrast, he said, Russia was doing its share of the work to help convene the conference:

“We are exerting influence on Damascus, it gives tangible results.”

Moscow has repeatedly said that for the peace talks to be successful, the opposition should speak with one voice. Lavrov warned that the opposition was essentially disintegrating.

“The National Coalition is losing its positions. It is losing its influence,” he said.

On the ground, a car bomb in a rebel-held northwestern town killed at least 15 people and wounded dozens in a crowded outdoor market, setting cars on fire and sending people running in panic, two activist groups said.

The bomb went off in the town of Darkoush in Idlib province, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees. The marketplace was busy with shoppers on the eve of Eid al-Adha.

It was not clear who carried out the bombing and why they attacked a civilian target in a rebel-held area. Syria’s conflict has seen an increasing use of car bombings, but most have been carried out against regime targets, usually by jihadi fighters among rebels.

The Observatory put the death toll at 27, while the Committees said 15 were killed. Such discrepancies often occur in the aftermath of such attacks.

The intensity of the conflict has not abated in recent weeks – even as inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons press on with their work to destroy the country’s chemical weapons stockpile.

Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the OPCW, said that inspectors have so far visited five of at least 20 sites linked to chemical weapons. The BBC quoted him as saying that one abandoned site was in rebel-held territory and that in other cases, routes went through opposition-controlled areas, preventing access.

“They change hands from one day to another, which is why we appeal to all sides in Syria to support this mission, to be cooperative and not render this mission more difficult. It’s already challenging,” he told the BBC.

The mission stems from a deadly Aug. 21 attack on opposition-held suburbs of Damascus in which the U.N. determined the nerve agent sarin was used. The West says the Syrian government was responsible, while Damascus blames the rebels.

Monday marked the date that Syria formally joined the OPCW, 30 days after submitting its application at the United Nations.

U.N. diplomats say Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has selected Sigrid Kaag of The Netherlands to lead the team charged with destroying the country’s chemical weapons.

In an interview published Monday by the Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper, Assad was quoted as saying that his country stopped manufacturing chemical agents in 1997 because they became an “outdated deterrent.” He said Syria has since concentrated on its missile capabilities.

“Developing Syria’s missile deterrent force that can be used from the first moments of war ended the necessity of chemical weapons,” Assad was quoted as saying. Nonetheless, Assad said, Syria is suffering a “moral and political loss” in handing over its chemical weapons.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 15, 2013, on page 1.

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