Syria Rebels Thwart Plan for November Talks, Brahimi Says

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

“We were hoping that we’d be in a position to announce a date today but unfortunately we’re not,” Brahimi told reporters yesterday after more than nine hours of meetings in Geneva with officials from the U.S., Russia, the 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.”

The Syrian opposition has said it won’t participate in discussions that allow President Bashar al-Assad to remain in power. Syrian Minister for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar said Oct. 21 the planned peace talks won’t address Assad’s fate.

Until yesterday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon held out hope for holding peace talks in Geneva starting Nov. 23 aimed at 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. The war has resulted in losses of almost $50 billion to gross domestic product since 2010, the Economist Intelligence Unit said in a report released today.

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

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

Opposition Divisions

“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 meet again 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.

The envoy’s trip highlighted the Western-backed opposition’s unwillingness to participate in talks without a guaranteed time frame for 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’s Position

Iran hasn’t accepted a 2012 international agreement known as the Geneva communique, which calls for the establishment of a transitional administration mutually acceptable to the Syrian 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.

If 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, they said.

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

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

Kurds, U.S.

The SNC is working with other groups, including the Kurds, to cooperate on putting together a representative delegation for peace talks, according to a U.S. official who briefed reporters yesterday in Geneva on condition of not being named. The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, will travel to Istanbul soon to express his support, the official said, according to a State Department transcript of the briefing.

The U.S. continues to be hopeful that a conference can take place before the end of this year, the official said.

The SNC’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. He also stressed the need for Brahimi, the 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, the Syrian government’s Information Minister, Omran al-Zoubi, said via the state-run SANA news agency, that there will be no giving up 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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