BEIRUT: An international conference aimed at ending Syria’s civil war is planned for Nov. 23, the head of the Arab League said Sunday, although U.N. envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi said the date had yet to be finalized and that peace talks would not be held “without a credible opposition.”
For months, the United States and Russia have been working to bring the Damascus government and Syria’s divided opposition to Geneva to discuss a political solution to the civil war, but the meeting has been repeatedly postponed. Even now, it remains unclear whether either side is willing to negotiate while the conflict, now in its third year, remains deadlocked.
The main Western-backed opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, is scheduled to meet on Nov. 1 to decide whether or not to attend the proposed Geneva conference. One of the most prominent factions within the Coalition, the Syrian National Council, has said it had no faith in such talks and wouldn’t attend.
Many rebel fighters on the ground have flatly refused to negotiate with the regime. The government, meanwhile, has refused to talk with the armed opposition.
Speaking at Arab League headquarters in Cairo, League chief Nabil Elaraby said the Geneva conference would be held on Nov. 23. He said “many difficulties” face the proposed peace talks, but stressed “it’s time that the killings and the bloodshed stopped.”
Brahimi struck a more cautious tone and emphasized that the timing of the conference was not yet set.
He said he must first visit Qatar and Turkey – two key supporters of the rebellion – and then meet with U.S. and Russian officials in Geneva before a final date would be announced.
The envoy will also visit Tehran next week for talks to prepare for the proposed peace conference, Iranian state media reported Sunday.
Iran is Syrian President Bashar Assad’s most important regional backer, and the prospect of a peace conference raises questions over whether it will be invited, something Washington has resisted unless Tehran states publicly it would support a transition government in Syria. That would mean Assad should step down.
Al-Watan, a pro- Damascus newspaper, said Brahimi would also visit Syria next week to discuss the planned conference. Damascus has heavily criticized the envoy, especially after he suggested a transitional government be set up and given full powers until elections, following his last visit in late 2012.
Watan said Damascus was ready to welcome him as long as “he works as a mediator, not as a party in the international conflict over Syria.”
On the key issue of who will take part in the talks, Brahimi said that the negotiations “will not be held without a credible opposition, representing an important part of opposition within Syrian people.”
But at the same time, he said: “It is not important that all – either armed or nonarmed opposition – join in the meeting as those who won’t participate will be included in Geneva II subsequent phase.”
Najib Ghadbian, the opposition coalition’s U.S. representative, said despite the Syrian National Council’s decision, other members of the umbrella group could still decide to go, assuming Assad was not there.
“We have not made a decision in the coalition about whether to go or not, but we agreed on certain determinants of what’s acceptable for us to go to Geneva, including our understanding that Assad is not part of that process,” Ghadbian said during an appearance at John Hopkins University’s School in Washington Friday.Islam Alloush, a spokesman for one rebel group, the Islam Brigade, said holding a conference that involved the Syrian regime could make the conflict worse by emboldening government forces to act more harshly on the ground.
“This is very, very sensitive. We have to be extremely careful,” Alloush said. “It could produce more negative results.”
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi reiterated Sunday the government’s position that it had “no preconditions” to going to Geneva, while listing a series of acts that he said would disqualify partners in a process of dialogue.
“Those who took up arms against Syria, engaged in bloodshed, or supported those who did, and those who permitted the killers to come from every part of the world through their borders, paid money, bought weapons, blew up cars and committed massacres and assassinations – those people are not a party to any political discussion, whether or not they are Syrians,” Zoubi told Al-Manar television.
“ Syria wants a Syrian-Syrian political, national dialogue that puts the national interest and sovereignty about all other considerations. This shouldn’t be considered a condition, but a fact of dialogue,” he said.
The Geneva II conference has been put off repeatedly for months, in part because of fundamental disagreements over Assad’s fate.
In the past, the Coalition has said that it would only negotiate if it was agreed from the start that Assad would leave power before the transition period could begin.
The regime has rejected demands for Assad to leave, saying the president will stay at least until the end of his term in mid-2014, and he will decide then whether to seek re-election.