MOSCOW/BEIRUT: A senior Syrian official said Thursday that a long-delayed international conference aimed at ending his country’s civil war was scheduled for Nov. 23-24, but co-organizers Russia and the United States denied a date had been set.
A spokeswoman for the U.N. Syria peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi also cast doubt on the statement, saying the timing of the talks intended to bring Syria’s government and opposition together had not yet been agreed.
Washington and Moscow have been trying to bring the Damascus government and Syria’s divided opposition to negotiations in Geneva for months, but the meeting has been repeatedly delayed. It remains unclear if either side is really willing to negotiate while Syria’s civil war, now in its third year, remains deadlocked.
Meanwhile, the international agency overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile said that inspectors had so far found no “weaponized” chemical munitions, or shells ready to deliver poison gas or nerve agents, and that Syria’s declarations up to now had matched what inspectors found.
Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil gave what he said were the dates for the Geneva peace talks during a news conference in Moscow. He later told Reuters: “This is what [U.N. Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon is saying, not me.”
But hours later, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said: “We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves.”
“It is not a matter for Syrian officials but the responsibility of [the] U.N. Secretary-General to announce and set dates agreed with all sides,” he said.
The United States seconded that.
“No date is set until it is set and announced by the U.N.,” a senior State Department official said.
Brahimi spokeswoman Khawla Mattar said she did not expect a date to be announced before early November.
“We are still not announcing a date because we don’t think they are finalized or agreed by all parties,” Mattar said.
But she said a deputy to Brahimi, Nasser al-Kidwa, would meet with Syrian opposition representatives in Istanbul and other capitals to “discuss with them their readiness for specific dates in November.”
Jamil said the conference was needed because “everyone is at a dead end – a military and political dead end.
“ Geneva is a way out for everyone: the Americans, Russia, the Syrian regime and the opposition. Whoever realizes this first will benefit. Whoever does not realize it will find himself overboard, outside the political process.”
Syria’s opposition National Coalition said Thursday it will attend a “Friends of Syria” meeting in London next week that is expected to focus on the planned talks.
The key opposition grouping said it would also hold internal discussions in Istanbul next week, culminating with a vote on whether to attend the possible November meeting.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced Thursday he would take part in the London talks.
The Geneva talks have been put off repeatedly, in part because of fundamental disagreements over the fate of President Bashar Assad.
The Coalition has said it will only negotiate if it is agreed from the start that Assad will leave power at the end of a transition period. The regime has rejected such a demand, saying he will stay at least until the end of his term in mid-2014, and he will decide then whether to seek re-election.
The deal reached last month for Syria to scrap its chemical weapons rekindled efforts to convene the conference, dubbed “ Geneva II.”
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations are working to verify Syria’s initial declaration of its weapons program and render production and chemical mixing facilities inoperable by Nov. 1. Their work on the ground involves smashing control panels on machines and destroying empty munitions.
The team has visited 11 of more than 20 sites since Oct. 1 and carried out destruction work at six. “Cheap, quick and low-tech. Nothing fancy,” OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said of the work.
In the next phase, the work gets more complex and dangerous when actual chemical weapons have to be destroyed – in the midst of full-blown war.
The watchdog said Thursday that it had completed nearly half its inspections of Syria’s arsenal, despite working against a background of car bombings and mortar bomb attacks.
“We have done nearly 50 percent of the verification work of the facilities that have been declared to us,” Malik Ellahi, a political adviser on Syria for the OPCW, told journalists in The Hague.
Despite the progress toward destroying Syria’s arsenal by mid-2014, Ellahi said security remained a concern for the unprecedented mission in a war zone.
Several car bombs exploded near the inspectors’ Damascus hotel Saturday, and mortar bombs fell as recently as Wednesday night, giving “some cause for concern,” Ellahi said.
But the “security situation has not impeded any of their work,” he added.
The chemical stockpiles could be shipped out of the country to be safely destroyed elsewhere, Kerry said Thursday.
“My hope is that much of this material will be moved as rapidly [as] possible into one location, and hopefully on a ship, and removed from the region,” he said.
He did not go into details and such an operation is likely to prove technically challenging, as well as incredibly risky.
Indeed, the Chemical Weapons Convention actually bars countries from transporting their stockpiles to other nations.
But under U.N. Resolution 2118 adopted last month by the Security Council, member states were authorized to help transport the chemical weapons stockpiles so they could be destroyed in “the soonest and safest manner.”