LONDON/UNITED NATIONS: Syria’s opposition in exile resisted calls Tuesday from Western and Arab countries to commit to attending peace talks, saying it would not take part if there was any chance President Bashar Assad remained in power.
Eleven countries meeting in London pressed the opposition Syrian National Coalition to join talks to end a conflict that has killed over 100,000 people, but the group listed conditions and said it would decide in the coming weeks whether to attend.
“There will not be any negotiations at all without making sure that the Geneva II meeting is basically for the transitional period and for Assad to go,” National Coalition chief Ahmad al-Jarba told a news conference after the meeting.
“We are not going to sit and negotiate with Assad possibly being there,” he said. “Our people would not accept that. They will consider us as traitors if we came here to sell our people.”
However, Jarba did not explicitly rule out joining the talks and said his group would meet soon, possibly in Istanbul on Nov. 1, to vote on whether to attend Geneva II.
The United States and Russia said in May they would convene a Geneva II peace conference in which both sides would agree a transitional political set-up to end the war, but it faces huge obstacles and no firm date has been set.
A communique from the meeting said Geneva II would aim to establish a transitional government by which time “Assad and his close associates with blood on their hands will have no role in Syria.”
In the latest indication that Assad feels his position is tenable, he said Monday he saw no reason why he should not run for re-election next year.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, hosting Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the U.S., said it was vital that the Western-backed Syrian opposition join the talks.
“We urge the National Coalition to commit itself fully and to lead and form the heart of any opposition delegation to Geneva,” he told a news conference.
Many of the mostly Islamist rebels fighting in Syria refuse to recognize the exiled opposition favored by the West.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said talks were the only possible way to end the war.
“This war will not come to an end on the battlefield ... it will come to an end through a negotiated settlement,” he said. “The only alternative to a negotiated settlement is continued, if not increased, killing.”
As for the National Coalition’s decision on Geneva II, Kerry said the Western-backed Syrian opposition members had “to make up their own mind.”
“None of us are going to prejudge or precondition what they will choose to do in that process,” Kerry said after the meeting.
Several officials, including Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby, have said they expect Geneva II to convene on Nov. 23, though the U.S., Russia and the United Nations have all said no date has been officially set.
U.N. and Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi will meet again in early November with U.S. and Russian officials to prepare for the conference, the United Nations said.
The preparatory meeting will be held in Geneva Nov. 5 and will be followed the same day by a meeting with the other three permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – France, Britain and China, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said. He did not say at what level they would meet.
Several preparatory meetings have previously been held in Geneva, the Hague and New York, generally at the level of deputy foreign ministers or undersecretary of state.
The United Nations maintains it is up to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to issue invitations, and he hasn’t done so yet.
As the opposition and its backers met in London, Brahimi visited the Sultanate of Oman, and will head to Jordan Wednesday, according to a U.N. spokesman.
Meanwhile, Brahimi’s deputy, Nasser al-Kidwa, was in Turkey to meet with Syrian opposition leaders.
Separately, Norway said it would weigh if it would take the bulk of Syria’s chemical weapons – trigging efforts for Geneva II – for eventual destruction.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Ragnhild Imerslund said that the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which are working together to eliminate the deadly arsenal, wanted to see the stockpile destroyed in one place.
Imerslund said that Norway was refusing to handle weapons-ready material though the country’s newly installed center-right government is considering taking mustard gas and precursor chemicals that could be mixed to make more weapons.
The ministry says that, according to the latest U.N. estimates, Syria has 50 metric tons of mustard gas and some 300-500 metric tons of chemicals used to make deadly nerve agents.