Middle East

Syria opposition pressed to sign up for peace talks

US Secretary of State John Kerry throws his scarf over his shoulder as he arrives at the Le Bourget airport to attend a two-day meeting on Syria, on January 12, 2014. AFP PHOTO/ PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS

PARIS: US Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday led an international bid to drag Syria's divided opposition into meaningful peace negotiations with President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

At the start of a crucial couple of weeks for attempts to end a civil war that has claimed 130,000 lives, Kerry joined ministers from 10 other countries in seeking to persuade the opposition National Coalition to attend a first round of talks in Montreux, Switzerland on January 22.

The Swiss talks have been organised in an attempt to revive a long-stalled framework for peace involving a cessation of hostilities and the creation of a national transitional government that could involve figures from the current regime and the opposition.

But the opposition is wary of being drawn into a process they fear could result in Assad clinging on to power and have yet to give a commitment to attending.

Coalition leader Ahmad Jarba has called for Assad to stop using heavy weapons, lift sieges on a number of opposition-held areas and allow the opening of humanitarian corridors as a show of good faith ahead of any talks.

There has been no sign of progress on those issues but US officials have expressed confidence that, with little prospect of securing a military victory after nearly three years of fighting, the opposition will come to Montreux.

"I think in the final analysis they won't want to miss that opportunity, because frankly there's no other game, really," a US diplomat told reporters.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said it was vital the opposition came to the negotiating table.

"I know that it is not an easy decision for the opposition in Syria," he said. "We want to work to convince them today in Paris and remove the last obstacles that may arise.

"We must get down to work in earnest. I fear that we will not be successful if we do not manage to include the opposition in these talks."

The balance of power in the conflict in Syria appears to have tipped in Assad's favour over the last week as deadly clashes have erupted between the mainstream opposition and an al Qaeda-linked group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), with which they were previously allied.

Skirmishes have left an estimated 500 people dead in a matter of days and ISIL is threatening to abandon frontline positions in the area around Syria's second city, Aleppo.

The fighting has exacerbated concern in western capitals over the strength of radical Islamist groups within the broad alliance of forces fighting Assad.

Hopes of progress towards peace in Syria rose last year when Assad agreed to give up the regime's chemical weapons after the West pulled back from the brink of threatened military intervention.

Opposition leaders fear that deal, which involved Syria's ally Russia becoming a pivotal player in the efforts to end the conflict, has diluted the West's determination to see Assad removed from power.

Among the other issues due to be discussed on Sunday was whether Iran, an important backer of Assad, will have any role in peace talks further down the line.

Russia has been lobbying for Tehran to be brought into the process and the issue is likely to dominate discussions on Monday between Kerry, his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria.

As well as the the United States and hosts France, the countries taking part in Sunday's meeting were Britain, Egypt, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.





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