BEIRUT: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Thursday put in a last-ditch plea to Syria’s opposition-in-exile to attend next week’s peace talks in Switzerland.
The Syrian National Coalition is scheduled to vote Friday on whether to take part in the so-called “Geneva II” conference, which will begin Jan. 22 in the Swiss city of Montreux.
In Washington, Kerry said the leader of Syria going forward must be agreed upon by both parties – he said it was inconceivable that the opposition would ever agree to allowing Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is accused of brutally fighting against his own people, to lead the nation.
The coalition was rocked by several dozen resignations from its 120-member General Assembly after its most recent meeting, when it re-elected its president, Ahmad Jarba.
Disgruntled members of the group have been unconvinced by arguments about the value of going to Geneva because they have not received guarantees that Assad’s departure from power will be on the table.
Meanwhile, a leading “internal” opposition group, which rejects the armed insurgency, said it would stay away from Switzerland.
Khaled Dahowd, an executive member of the National Coordination Body, accused Russia and the U.S. of rushing the talks to promote their own interests in the region, rather than those of the Syrian people.
The NCB has tense relations with the National Coalition. “There will be four days between the [National] Coalition’s decision to attend Geneva and the start of the conference. How can we create a unified delegation with a unified democratic platform four days before an international conference? “Under these conditions we will not attend ... The Geneva conference as planned now will fail.”
Dahowd argued the two world powers were forcing the conference to increase their own regional influence, not to help Syrians reach a final political settlement.
“[ U.S. Ambassador] Robert Ford knows this conference is going to fail but that is what he wants because it will probably degrade Syria further and will allow Washington to get more power over the outcome when the real deal comes,” Dahowd said.
“And Russia is also happy with this setup, because they think that in the meantime Assad will be gaining more power and territory. They are both delaying a real solution.”
At least two leading members of the NCB are currently imprisoned by the regime. Dahowd said Russia should have required Assad to release such figures, as well as females and minors, before talks could begin.
In Moscow, Russia’s foreign minister said Iran would “inevitably” become part of attempts to end Syria’s war, and strongly urged the West to invite Tehran to Montreux.
Sergey Lavrov met with Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, and they were later joined by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem. Lavrov will also have a separate meeting with Moallem Friday.
Iran “must be and inevitably will become part of complex efforts to settle the Syrian problem,” Lavrov said.
The U.S. has opposed Iran’s involvement as it did not endorse last year’s initial Geneva document, which outlined a transitional phase for Syria.