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Middle East france 24

Syrian opposition balks at talks, reiterates demands

© Amer Almohibany, AFP | Fighters from the Jaish al-Islam (Islam Army) rebel group in Damascus province, who oppose both the regime and the IS group, on patrol in Jobar

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2016-01-22

The Saudi-backed Syrian opposition ruled out even indirect negotiations with Damascus until certain conditions are met, despite US Secretary of State John Kerry’s insistence that talks will begin next week.

With the five-year-old Syrian war showing no signs of ending, it looks increasingly uncertain that peace talks will begin as planned on January 25 in Geneva, partly because of a dispute over the composition of the opposition delegation.

Peace efforts face considerable obstacles, among them disagreements over President Bashar al-Assad’s future and tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Russia on Friday denied a report that President Vladimir Putin had asked Assad to step down last year.

The Syrian government has said it is ready to take part in the Geneva talks on time. The office of UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said he was still aiming “at rolling out the talks” on January 25, and would be “assessing progress over the weekend”.

Russia said the talks could be delayed until January 27 or 28 because of the disagreement over who would represent the opposition.

But George Sabra, a senior opposition official, said the obstacles to the talks were still there and reiterated demands for the lifting of blockades on populated areas and the release of detainees, measures set out in a December 18 Security Council resolution that endorsed the peace process.

Opposition's multiple pressures

Sabra’s opposition council, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), was formed in Saudi Arabia last month. It groups Assad’s political and armed opponents, including rebel factions fighting Damascus in western Syria, the main theatre of the war between rebels and Damascus. The regime’s military position has been bolstered since September by Russian warplanes and Iranian ground forces.

One of the biggest rebel factions in the HNC, Jaysh al-Islam, said the opposition was facing “many pressures” to make concessions but credited Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar for helping it to “overcome these pressures”.

The lead negotiator picked by the HNC for the hoped-for negotiations is a member of Jaysh al-Islam, another potential complication to the talks because Russia says it is a terrorist group.

Russia views the HNC as a Saudi attempt to dictate who represents the opposition, and has called for the opposition delegation to be expanded to include the Kurdish PYD and other groups. The HNC has said it will not join any negotiations if a third party attends.

The Kurds control vast areas of northern and northeastern Syria, where they have set up an autonomous administration that they say should be a model for settling the Syrian conflict.

The opposition accuses the Kurds of cooperating with Damascus, a charge they deny. One opposition official said on Thursday the Kurds should attend on the government side.

Syrian Kurdish leader Saleh Muslim told Reuters that the Syrian Kurds must be represented at peace talks or they will fail. He also accused Jaysh al-Islam of fostering the “same mentality” as al Qaeda and the Islamic State group.

“If there are some parties that are effective in this Syria issue who are not at the table, it will be the same as what happened in Geneva 2,” Muslim, co-chair of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) told Reuters, referring to failed negotiations in 2014.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

Date created : 2016-01-22

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