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Key Syria rebel group won't join talks unless Assad told to step down

Future of embattled president a major sticking point in creating road map for political transition, a goal of the talks

Rebel fighters shoot through a hole in a wall towards forces loyal to the regime Sunday in Aleppo.
2013 AFP

The head of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) said Tuesday that opposition forces loyal to him would not join a planned peace conference in Switzerland in January if it allows any possibility of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remaining in power.

During a phone interview with Al Jazeera, FSA chief Gen. Salim Idriss said: "We won’t go if Geneva doesn't say clearly Assad must go." He also said the rebels will not halt fighting during the conference.

The United Nations said Monday that Syria's government and opposition will hold their first peace talks, in Geneva on Jan. 22, an attempt to halt the nearly three-year-old civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people, including 11,000 children. However, the uncertainty over the FSA’s attendance raises questions about who will join and what it may ultimately be able to accomplish. 

Nabil Elaraby, secretary-general of the Arab League, said Tuesday that he welcomed the news that a date was set, but expressed regret at the delay in convening the conference because every day in Syria the death and destruction increases.

The Western-backed FSA is an umbrella group encompassing many rebel units, but opposition sources and analysts say its influence has already been reduced by powerful Islamist groups who are making their own alliances that draw in the strongest rebel forces on the ground.

The opposition has been badly divided over Geneva 2, with the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the opposition’s umbrella political leadership – which is also supported by the West – agreeing to talks despite strong resistance from fighters and activists on the ground.

Rebels are wary of the talks that they feel do not represent them, and which they fear will not ensure Assad’s ousting.

Previous attempts to bring the two sides together failed, mainly because of disputes over who should represent the Syrian opposition and government and whether Iran, Saudi Arabia and other regional powers should be at the table.

Future of Assad

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The goal of the conference is to implement the Geneva Communique of June 30, 2012, which provides for the establishment of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, including over military and security entities, based on mutual consent. 

But there has been no agreement on how to implement that roadmap. One of the biggest sticking points has been the future role of Assad.

The prospect of peace talks was up in the air at several points because opposition groups and Syria's government have argued over who should represent them and conditions for the talks. At one point, opposition groups wanted political prisoners released before they would agree to talks.

The opposition to Assad’s government in Syria has become increasingly fractured in recent months, further complicating the negotiations. It's still not clear exactly which groups will represent the opposition and who will represent the Syrian government.

The SNC, the main opposition group that has limited control over the myriad of rebel groups fighting Assad’s forces, has not yet decided who it would send, according to spokesman Khaled Saleh. 

"We want to have a successful conference, and we are not interested in a conference that is going to waste time; we are not interested in a conference that is going to justify killing more Syrians," he said.

Saleh said the SNC remained dead set against inviting Iran -- a staunch supporter of Assad that given him significant financial support and is believed to have sent military advisers, trained pro-government militiamen and directed one of its proxies, Lebanon's Shiite Muslim Hezbollah group, to fight alongside Assad's troops -- to the talks. 

"As of now, what I can say is Iran is not a party that's welcome given the current circumstances to attend the conference. If they change their positions, they start pulling out, and stop killing Syrians; we will start talking about them attending to the conference," he said. 

Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, also addressed the media on Monday, saying he hoped both the government and opposition would "name their delegations as early as possible."

When asked if Iran and Saudi Arabia, a staunch backer of the opposition, would participate, Brahimi answered, "We haven't established a list yet. These countries will certainly be among the possible participants." 

Meanwhile, the Syrian Foreign Ministry said in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon that ending support for the "armed terrorist groups" in Syria is "crucial for any political solution to the crisis in Syria to succeed and to give such a political process credibility in the eyes of the Syrian people." Contents of the letter were broadcast on Syrian TV on Monday.

Syrian government officials have insisted Assad would not step down and may even run for another term in presidential elections scheduled for mid-2014. Recent battlefield victories have shifted the momentum of Syria's conflict in Assad's favor.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the meeting the best opportunity to "form a new transitional governing body through mutual consent--an important step toward ending the suffering of the Syrian people and the destabilizing impact of this conflict on the region". 

Al Jazeera and wire services

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