Syrian Opposition to Join Peace Talks With Assad Officials

The main Western-backed coalition of Syria’s political opposition agreed to attend peace talks with representatives of President Bashar al-Assad in Switzerland this week, bringing the two sides together for the first time since the country’s civil war began in 2011.

Fifty-eight of 73 voters at a meeting of the Syrian National Coalition in Istanbul agreed to send a delegation to the international peace conference set to open in Montreux on Jan. 22, Soner Ahmed, a coalition spokesman, said yesterday by phone. Twelve abstained, two voted against participating, and one cast a blank ballot, Ahmed said.

The so-called Geneva II conference was at risk of collapse amid concerns the various rebel groups might fail to resolve increasingly sectarian internal rifts, deter the rise of radical Islamist militias and form a credible representative body.

Intensified combat hindering the delivery of humanitarian aid had also undermined prospects for the talks, which the U.S. and Russia say is the only way to end the conflict and its spill-overs that threaten regional stability.

The coalition agreed after “marathon discussions” to send a delegation to the international conference to confront Assad’s “terrorism,” and to “entirely” strip him of his authority, Ahmad al-Jarba, the coalition’s leader, said in a speech yesterday after the vote.

Purge ‘Criminals’

“We are not weak or the minority, and the free people of the world are supporting us,” Jarba said, adding that the regime must be tried and purged of “all its criminals.”

Assad said he isn’t ready to give up power and that the issue isn’t negotiable, Russia’s news agency Interfax reported. He made the comments at a meeting with Russian parliamentarians in Damascus, the agency said. Assad’s office dismissed the “inaccurate” report and said Interfax didn’t interview him, according to a statement on state-run news agency Sana.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed what he called a “courageous and historic step” toward ending the conflict.

“I look forward to the opposition’s expedited formation of a delegation that broadly represents the diversity of the Syrian opposition, including women,” Ban said in a statement.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague also supported the opposition alliance’s decision, according to e-mailed statements.

Hague’s Position

“Any mutually agreed settlement means that Assad can play no role in Syria’s future,” Hague said in a statement yesterday.

The U.S. and Russia have been trying to hold the UN-backed peace conference since last year, saying the talks offer the only political solution to a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 and forced millions to flee. Geneva II attendees will discuss establishing a transitional government with full executive powers by mutual consent, a plan adopted by the U.S., Russia and other major powers at the June 2012 conference dubbed “Geneva I.”

Assad’s deputy prime minister, Walid al-Muallem, informed the UN’s Ban in a Jan. 8 letter that the regime will send a delegation to the talks, while objecting to “certain points” in the terms of the aims of the conference. The government said elements of Ban’s invitation conflict “with the legal and political position of the State of Syria.”

Fighting ‘Terrorism’

Muallem did not specify the terms to which his government objects, instead reiterating the need for “the Syrian people to continue to fight terrorism.”

His government has opposed a U.S.-backed idea that peace talks would involve Assad’s removal from power. Assad has maintained from the civil war’s start that he is defending Syria from foreign-backed terrorism.

“There would be no point to extended discussions if the regime declines from the outset to engage on the subject of political transition,” said Frederic Hof, a former State Department official who has worked on the political transition in Syria. He is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

If it declines, the U.S. would be obliged to return to Kerry’s initial objective of changing “Assad’s calculation with respect to negotiated political transition in Syria,” he said.

While the Assad regime “can bluster, they can protest, they can put out distortions,” the purpose of the talks is to discuss a political transition, Kerry said on Jan. 17.

Ban’s Invitation

“The bottom line is: We are going to Geneva to implement Geneva I. And if Assad doesn’t do that, he will invite greater response in various ways from various people over a period of time,” Kerry said.

Ban on Jan. 6 invited about 30 countries including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, key backers of Syrian rebel factions, to meet in Montreux. Iran, a major ally and supporter of Assad, wasn’t invited because it hasn’t officially recognized the need for a political transition in Syria.

Following initial talks in Montreux involving all invited countries, UN special envoy on Syria Lakhdar Brahimi will mediate negotiations between the opposition and the Syrian government delegations from Jan. 24 at the UN headquarters in Geneva.

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