Pressure Mounts on Syria Opposition to Join Talks

Monday, 21 Oct 2013 04:43 AM

 

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DAMASCUS, Syria — Western and Arab diplomats Monday will to try to build support for proposed Syrian peace talks next month imperiled by rifts among the opposition, which may refuse to attend.

Rebels have meanwhile carried out two major attacks in as many days on government troops in which suicide car and truck bombers triggered blasts that killed dozens of people.

Secretary of State John Kerry was scheduled Monday to meet Arab League representatives in Paris ahead of a Tuesday meeting of the opposition and its Western and Arab backers.

U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned on Sunday that the Geneva 2 peace talks, aimed at creating a transitional government and ending nearly three years of fighting, cannot be held without the attendance of a "credible opposition" to President Bashar Assad.

"There is an agreement to attempt to hold Geneva 2 in November, but the date has not been officially set," Brahimi said Sunday after meeting the head of the Arab League in Cairo. "We hope it will take place in November."

Brahimi spoke on the first leg of a Middle East tour aimed at drumming up support for the initiative to end the 31-month conflict that has killed more than 115,000 people and displaced millions more.

The veteran troubleshooter was expected in Iraq on Monday, and has said he will also travel to Qatar, Turkey, Iran, Syria, and then Geneva for talks with Russian and U.S. representatives.

Al-Watan, a pro-government newspaper, said Brahimi would visit Syria next week, where he came under heavy criticism from the regime for suggesting a transitional government following his last visit in 2012.

Al-Watan said Damascus, which has accused Brahimi of tilting towards the rebels, was ready to welcome him as long as "he works as a mediator, not as a party in the international conflict over Syria."

Washington and Moscow have been trying to organize the conference on the heels of a landmark deal they reached for Syria to destroy its chemical weapons by mid-2014.

But the opposition has been fiercely critical of the agreement — which averted punitive US strikes on the regime following a sarin gas attack in August that killed hundreds of people — and at least one major group has already refused to go to Geneva.

The opposition has also demanded that Assad step down as part of any agreement, while the regime has insisted his exit is not on the table.

The National Coalition umbrella opposition group said its members would decide in the coming days whether to attend the Geneva talks, while the Syrian National Council, a key component of the bloc, has threatened to quit if they do.

But even if the Coalition attends the Geneva meeting, it is unclear whether it can enforce any agreement, after dozens of rebel brigades have in recent weeks rejected the umbrella group.

The Geneva initiative was first announced last year, but it has been repeatedly postponed over opposition objections and a dispute over which countries, including Iran, should participate.

As diplomats wrangled over the proposed talks, Syrian rebels stepped up attacks over the weekend, launching a complex assault on a Damascus checkpoint and setting off a suicide truck bomb in the regime-held central city of Hama.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 43 people — including 32 civilians as well as regime troops — were killed in Sunday's truck bombing at a checkpoint in Hama.

Assad's father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad brutally put down a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama city in 1982, killing between 10,000 and 40,000 people.

Sunday's attack came a day after rebels from the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist group linked to al-Qaida, set off a car bomb and launched an assault on a checkpoint near a key Damascus neighborhood, killing 16 soldiers and sparking clashes that went on for hours.

© AFP 2014

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