Friends of Syria meeting reveals obstacles to peace

Syrian opposition pegs participation in peace conference to Assad's removal; Saudis break with US policy

Arab and Western foreign ministers meet at Lancaster House in London to discuss Syria’s civil war on Oct. 22, 2013.
Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

Plans to end Syria’s civil war were hampered Tuesday after the Syrian opposition made President Bashar al-Assad’s removal from power a condition for attending a proposed peace conference in Geneva next month, while Saudi Arabia announced it would no longer cooperate with the U.S. over the conflict.

The obstacles were made clear as the Friends of Syria group, which includes Western nations and their Middle East allies, met in London to press Syria’s fractured opposition to join the proposed peace talks. Assad has already indicated that he would not bow to opposition demands that he step down.

The United States and Russia said in May they would convene a conference, called Geneva 2, to try to end the conflict, which has killed more than 100,000 people and created a refugee crisis, but it faces huge obstacles.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said it was vital that representatives of the Western-backed Syrian opposition join the talks, but U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged that they had offered no commitment.

Opposition factions are loath to discuss anything except for the immediate departure of Assad — who said Monday he saw no reason he should not run for re-election next year.

“The sultan must leave,” said Ahmed Jarba, an opposition chief, in reference to Assad. “Geneva cannot succeed and we cannot take part if it allows Assad to gain more time to spill the blood of our people while the world looks on.”

Another factor complicating the proposed talks is that many of Syria’s rebel factions, which include a number of hard-line Islamist groups, refuse to recognize the exiled opposition favored by the West.

Saudi frustration

Efforts to present a united front on Syria suffered another setback Tuesday when Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief said the kingdom would make a “major shift” in relations with the U.S. in protest over its perceived inaction on Syria and its overtures to Iran.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan told European diplomats that Washington had failed to act on Syria, among other Middle Eastern issues, a source close to Saudi policy told Reuters. “The shift away from the U.S. is a major one,” the source said.

There would be no further coordination with the U.S. over the war in Syria, where the Saudis have armed and financed rebel groups fighting Assad, the source said.

Saudi anger boiled over after Washington refrained from military strikes in response to poison-gas attacks near Damascus in August.

Saudi Arabia is also concerned about signs of a tentative reconciliation between Washington and Tehran, Saudi Arabia’s old enemy, which may be invited to Geneva.

Pressing ahead

Kerry met Jarba, who leads the opposition Syrian National Coalition, before the London talks began, but there was no word on the outcome.

Kerry said Monday that events may have moved in Assad’s favor since he and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced plans for the peace conference five months ago but that the aim remained to get all sides to choose a transitional government.

“I don’t know anybody who believes that the opposition will ever consent to Bashar al-Assad being part of that government,” Kerry said.

“If he thinks he is going to solve problems by running for re-election, I can say to him ... this war will not end,” he added.

Hague said no military solution existed and urged Syrians to “make the compromises necessary for a peace process to work.”

Several officials, including Arab League chief Nabil el-Araby, have said they expect the Geneva 2 conference to convene on Nov. 23, though the United States, Russia and the United Nations have all said no date had been officially set.

Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States met on Tuesday in London, where they were expected to discuss the agenda for the peace talks and to help the opposition prepare for them, a U.S. official said.

While Washington has said it is open to the possibility that Iran, which has supported Assad, would participate in a Geneva conference, Kerry said it was hard to see Tehran’s playing a constructive role unless it backs the idea of a transitional government.

Hague said Iran must support a Syrian interim government, which would include figures from Assad’s administration and the opposition, as the way to political dialogue and free elections.

“If Iran could start from that position as well as the rest of us, then Iran would be more easily included in international discussions on the subject,” he said.

However, the West and its Arab allies are divided on Iranian involvement. Saudi Arabia, which backs Syria’s mostly Sunni Muslim rebels, vehemently opposes any inclusion of Shia Iran, its regional archrival.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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