Syria Rebels Thwart Plan for November Talks, Brahimi Says

The goal of convening a Syrian peace conference this month was thwarted by opposition groups that aren’t ready to negotiate a political solution to the country’s civil war, UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said today.

“We were hoping that we’d be in a position to announce a date today but unfortunately we’re not,” Brahimi told reporters after more than nine hours of meetings in Geneva with officials from the U.S., Russia, U.K., France, China and humanitarian aid organizations. “We are still striving to see if we can have a conference before the end of the year.”

Until today, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon held out hope for holding peace talks in Geneva starting Nov. 23 toward ending the Syrian civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people, according to a UN official in Ban’s office who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Brahimi spoke after recent visits to Damascus, Tehran and other Mideast capitals.

The envoy said he realized “over the last few weeks” that all relevant parties aren’t ready to participate in the proposed peace talks.

“We did not discover this morning that we were not there,” he said, highlighting divisions within the loose opposition coalition of some 1,200 groups. “The opposition is one of the problems we are facing.”

Brahimi said he will again meet with U.S. and Russian officials on Nov. 25, by which time the Syrian opposition will have held a series of meetings about forming a single “credible” delegation ready to participate in peace talks.

Assad’s Role

Talks during the envoy’s trip highlighted the Western-backed opposition’s unwillingness to participate in talks without a guaranteed time frame for President Bashar al-Assad’s departure and assurances that Assad’s ally Iran won’t attend a peace conference, according to a second official in UN chief Ban’s office who asked not to be named discussing confidential negotiations.

The UN hasn’t yet concluded which countries and organizations it will invite to a peace conference, and Iran’s role in the process needs further discussion, Brahimi said.

Iran hasn’t accepted a 2012 international agreement known as the Geneva communique, which calls for the establishment of a transitional government mutually acceptable to the government and the opposition, without explicitly describing the fate of Assad in this process. The U.S. has said acceptance of the process outlined in the Geneva pact is a requirement for countries that want to participate in the conference.

Brahimi’s Departure

If the peace talks aren’t held soon, Brahimi is likely to step down from the role he assumed in August 2012, the UN officials said. If that happens, Ban or UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson may have to take on the task of resuscitating the peace talks, they said.

Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, took the job after a predecessor, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, resigned.

It doesn’t seem likely that a peace conference will be held by the end of this year, the second UN official said. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates -- three Gulf countries that are funding Syrian rebel groups -- are particularly against any talks with Assad, the official said.

The Saudis are angry that the U.S. and the international community aren’t doing more to bring down Assad and are concerned the Syrian president is gaining legitimacy by cooperating with an international effort to eliminate his chemical weapons, according to the first official. Saudi Arabia rejected a nonpermanent seat on the UN Security Council last month.

Without Conditions

Ban will watch the Syrian National Coalition general body’s Nov. 9 meeting in Istanbul for a possible changes in the opposition’s position, the UN officials said.

The coalition’s Turkey-based spokesman, Khalid Saleh, said in a phone interview that the opposition will have a clearer position on the proposed peace talks this weekend, while stressing the need for Brahimi, U.S. and Russia to pressure Assad to accept the Geneva communique and agree to a political transition.

The Assad administration said on Nov. 1 that it would attend a Geneva peace conference “without prior conditions,” Brahimi told reporters after meeting with Syrian officials in Damascus. Three days later, Syrian goverment’s Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said via the state-run SANA news agency, that there will be no turnover of power as a result of any planned peace talks.

“What is going to happen in Geneva is a political process and not a handover of power or forming a transitional governing body,” al-Zoubi said.

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