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U.N.: Disagreements over who should attend Syria peace talks may cause delay

By Fred Lambert Contact the Author   |   Jan. 19, 2016 at 3:58 PM
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GENEVA, Switzerland, Jan. 19 (UPI) -- Disagreement over which opposition groups will be attending Syrian peace talks in Geneva has raised doubts about the Monday start date.

United Nations officials said last month they wanted to begin negotiations for a transitional government on Jan. 25, but a group of 17 supporting nations, including the United States and Russia, have not decided which rebel groups will have a seat at the table.

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Voice of America quoted U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq on Monday as saying invitations would not be sent out until a consensus was reached.

The U.N. hopes to implement a cease-fire alongside the talks, which are aimed at creating an inclusive, non-sectarian government and U.N.-supervised elections within 18 months.

The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said earlier this month it was prepared to join the negotiations but wanted to know if they would be attended by "terrorist groups" -- a distinction used broadly by Damascus, as well as Moscow, in reference to all of Syria's opposition.

Previous attempts at peace talks collapsed in the face of Syrian government intransigence over allowing rebel cells a seat at the negotiating table.

Several major rebel groups met in Saudi Arabia last month to hammer out a unified framework for the Geneva talks.

The Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition, which calls for Assad's departure and the establishment of a transitional governing body in Syria, was in attendance, as was the Southern Front alliance, which the BBC quoted as saying it was the "moderate voice and the strong arm of the Syrian people."

Conservative Islamist factions such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam also sent representatives to Riyadh, but Ahrar al-Sham later withdrew, saying other delegates were too close to the Syrian government. Both groups want the Assad government out and an Islamic state in its place, but the leader of Jaish al-Islam later softened his stance, saying the Syrian people should decide their future.

Representatives at the conference signed a final statement calling for a unified Syria with a representative government that would replace the Assad administration after a transitional period, and a 15-member negotiating team was reportedly chosen for the Geneva talks.

Kurdish rebel cells such as the YPG and militants with the Nusra Front, a rebel group linked to al-Qaida, were not invited to the Riyadh talks, but a U.S.-backed rebel coalition of Arabs, Kurds and Assyrians, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, held its own conference on Dec. 11 in the al-Hasakah province, announcing the formation of a political wing known as the Syrian Democratic Council.

Iran -- which, along with Russia, backs the Assad government -- condemned the meeting in Riyadh, saying it would harm the Geneva talks. Both Tehran and Moscow have argued the opposition is too fragmented to uphold an agreement.

The New York Times quoted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last month as calling the Riyadh conference "an important step forward."

Kerry praised a cease-fire between rebels and government troops in the city of Homs last month that allowed humanitarian aid to enter a neighborhood besieged by pro-Assad forces.

U.N. officials expressed hope the deal could serve as a framework for a wider truce in Syria, where more than 250,000 people have been killed in fighting between the government and a medley of insurgent groups since 2011.

On Wednesday, Syrian rebel groups reportedly said they would reject the Geneva talks if articles 12 and 13 of a recent U.N. resolution, which call for all sides in Syria's conflict to allow humanitarian access to besieged cities, were not fully implemented.

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