Middle East

Syrian opposition assured Assad will go, urged to attend peace talks

From left, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, French ambassador to Syria Eric Chevallier, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Turkish Foreign Affairs minister Ahmet Davutoglu, pose for photographers, prior to a meeting at the foreign ministry in Paris, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Joel Saget, Pool)

PARIS: The US-led group of countries backing the Syrian opposition on Sunday assured the rebels that there will be no place for President Bashar al-Assad in a transitional government they hope to see emerge from upcoming peace talks.

Stepping up their efforts to get the opposition National Coalition to negotiate directly with representatives of Assad's regime, the 11-nation Friends of Syria group said in a statement that once a transitional government is established .... "Assad and his close associates with blood on their hands will have no role in Syria."

The pledge came at the start of a new round of diplomatic efforts to end the country's civil war that continues Monday with talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

Kerry flew into Paris on Sunday in a bid to help persuade the National Coalition to send a delegation to a first round of talks scheduled to be held 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 include figures from the current regime and the opposition.

Sections of the opposition coalition are wary of being drawn into a process they fear could result in Assad clinging to power and National Coalition leader Ahmad Jarba stopped short of a clear commitment to attending next week's talks ahead of a meeting of his organisation in Istanbul on Friday.

Jarba did however indicate that he had been reassured by the tone of Sunday's discussions.

"We all agreed that there is no future for Bashar al-Assad and his family in Syria," he said.

"His departure is inevitable."

Jarba added: "We are at a crossroads today in the framework of international decisions regarding the Syrian revolution.

"We have passed a milestone on the way to the end of the regime."

Jarba has previously 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.

"We emphasised over and over to the opposition representatives that not taking part in the talks would lead to a failure of the discussions or would prevent them from taking place," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said after Sunday's talks. "I hope we convinced them."

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius added: "It is important that the Geneva II meeting takes place and succeeds. The only solution to the Syrian tragedy is a political solution."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said it was in the opposition's interests to attend the talks and try to end a conflict that has caused 130,000 deaths and created more than two million refugees.

"In the end, there's got to be a political solution in Syria," Hague told Sky News from Paris. "This is going to put the Assad regime on the spot if everybody turns up at those peace 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. 

According to NGOs monitoring the conflict, at least 700 people have been killed since the fighting started January 3 and the 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, and Sunday's conclusions included a strong statement of support for the mainstream rebels right to take action against ISIL.

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 would see Syria's ally Russia becoming a pivotal player in the efforts to end the conflict, has diluted the West's determination that Assad be removed from power.

Monday's Kerry-Lavrov meeting is expected to focus on whether Iran, which has been instrumental in propping up Assad, should have any role in peace talks further down the line.





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