BEIRUT/MOSCOW: The Syrian opposition said Sunday it was prepared to attend a proposed Geneva peace conference on the condition that it was aimed at establishing a transitional government with full powers.
In a letter seen by Reuters from the head of the Syrian Coalition, Ahmad Jarba, to the U.N. Security Council, Jarba for the first time committed his group to attending the as-yet-unscheduled Geneva II conference.
The coalition had resisted pressure to go to Geneva, especially after the chemical weapons attack outside of Damascus in late August, which rebels and the West blame on the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Jarba’s comments mean that both Assad’s government and the main political opposition have agreed in principle to attend the peace talks. However, their conditions for participation still appear far from reconcilable.
Rebels and the political opposition insist Assad can play no role in a transitional authority, while the government has ruled out conceding power to its opponents.
Jarba’s coalition also has very limited influence over the fighters inside Syria, particularly the increasingly powerful Islamist brigades and Al-Qaeda-linked groups.
The rebels, fighting to end 40 years of Assad family rule, were angered by the U.S.-Russian accord to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, saying it had distracted the world while Assad deployed a large conventional arsenal to crush his foes.
Russia Sunday accused the West of trying to exploit the chemical arms deal with Syria to push through a U.N. resolution threatening force against Assad.
Assad’s government has handed over information about its chemical arsenal to a U.N.-backed weapons watchdog, meeting the first deadline of the ambitious U.S.-Russia accord which the U.N. Security Council is due to endorse in the coming days.
But major powers on the council who have disagreed throughout a conflict which has killed 100,000 people, remain divided over how to ensure compliance with the accord.
The United States, France and Britain want a council resolution issued under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, which could authorize sanctions or military intervention if Damascus reneges on its commitments.
Russia, which along with China has blocked three draft resolutions on Syria since the 2011 uprising against Assad erupted, opposes Western threats of force against an ally which Moscow has continued to arm and support during the civil war.
“They see in the U.S.-Russian deal not a chance to save the planet from significant quantities of chemical weapons in Syria, but a chance to do what Russia and China will not allow, namely to push through a resolution involving [the threat of] force against the regime and shielding the opposition,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said. He added that Russia was ready to send troops to Syria to ensure the safety of U.N. chemical weapons inspectors.
“An international presence is needed on the perimeters of the areas where the experts will work,” he said. “We are willing to send our troops and military police to participate.
“I do not think that there is a need for a major contingent. I think military observers will be sufficient.”
Assad agreed to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons after a sarin gas strike in Damascus suburbs last month – the world’s deadliest chemical attack in 25 years.
Washington accused Assad’s forces of carrying out the attack, which it said killed more than 1,400 people. It said a report by U.N. chemical weapons experts last week supported its view – an assertion which Moscow disputes.
Assad blamed rebels for the attack, saying it made no sense for his forces to use chemical weapons when they were gaining the upper hand and while U.N. chemical inspectors were staying in central Damascus.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Lavrov spoke by telephone with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Sunday about efforts to implement the disposal of Syria’s chemical weapons.
A State Department official said the United States and other member states on the council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, had not yet seen the information given to the U.N.-backed watchdog by Syria.
“We will make an evaluation of the document after it has been distributed to member states,” the official said.
In central Damascus, a mortar shell struck the Russian Embassy compound Sunday, wounding three employees, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said. None of the injuries were serious, it added in a statement.