Major Syrian rebel group rejects Geneva peace talks

The move makes it less likely that there will be a breakthrough on peace talks with Assad's government

A member of Al-Jabha Al-Islamiya (the Islamic Front) takes position on a armored vehicle at a checkpoint in Idlib on Jan. 6, 2014.

A powerful alliance of Syrian Islamist rebels on Sunday rejected peace talks that begin this week, meaning that even if the talks reach an unlikely breakthrough in the three-year-old civil war, it will be harder to implement any agreement on the ground.

Syria's main political opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), agreed on Saturday to attend the talks that will begin in Geneva on Wednesday. This seemed to set up the first meeting between President Bashar al-Assad's government and groups in rebellion. 

But the Islamic Front, an alliance of several fighting forces that represents a large portion of the rebels on the ground, said it rejects the talks.

Syria's future would be "formulated here on the ground of heroism, and signed with blood on the front lines, not in hollow conferences attended by those who don't even represent themselves," said Abu Omar, a leading member of the Islamic Front, on his Twitter account.

The decision by the Islamic front comes as the SNC leadership is in Istanbul to decide on its delegation for the opening of Wednesday's peace talks.

Senior Coalition member Ahmad Ramadan said the meeting will decide who will negotiate with the Syrian government delegation at the so-called Geneva 2 conference.

The conference aims to broker a political settlement to the conflict based on a roadmap adopted in June 2012 by the United States, Russia and other major powers. That plan includes the creation of a transitional government with full executive powers.

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The U.S. and Russia have been trying to convene the conference since May, but it has been repeatedly postponed. Both sides finally agreed to sit together at the negotiating table after dropping some of their conditions.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Sunday he had invited Iran to participate in the talks as well, something that has been floated as a possibility but had yet to be finalized. Tehran accepted the invitation, according to the U.N. 

Subsequent to Ban's announcement, Syria's political opposition said it would not attend unless the Secretary-General retracted the invitation extended to Iran.

"The Syrian Coalition announces that they will withdraw their attendance in Geneva 2 unless Ban Ki-moon retracts Iran's invitation," it said in a Twitter post, quoting National Coalition spokesman Louay Safi.

Ban, as well as U.N. special envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, have long backed Iranian involvement in any peace talks.

"Iran needs to participate as one of the important neighboring countries," said Ban.

Meanwhile, the opposition does not want Assad to have any role during the transitional period. Syrian government officials say Assad will not hand over power and has the right to run for president again later this year.

Russia's Interfax news agency reported Sunday that Assad had told Russian lawmakers he would not yield power despite the peace talks, something that rebel groups and the U.S. see as an all but certain requirement for an agreement reached in any peace talks. However, Syrian state media later denied the quotes as "not accurate."

Some 130,000 people have been killed and a quarter of Syrians driven from their homes in the civil war, which began with peaceful protests against 40 years of Assad family rule but which has descended into wide, largely sectarian conflict, with the outside support on opposing side coming from Sunni Arab states and Shiite Iran.

Burying the hatchet?

In a separate development among anti-Assad groups in Syria, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of a group linked to Al-Qaeda reached out to rival rebel groups, with which Baghdadi's group has been engaged in a bloody battle this month. He called for the two sides to end their infighting and instead unite against the government and its allies.

Rebel-on-rebel infighting between the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and an array of ultraconservative and more moderate rebel factions has left more than 1,000 people dead across opposition-held northern Syria since it began in early January. The clashes are the most serious among Assad's opponents in Syria's civil war.

In a new 16-minute audio message posted online Sunday, ISIL leader Baghdadi accused the other rebel brigades of stabbing his group in the back, and said the infighting only benefits the government.

"You know that we did not want this war, we did not go for it, and we did not plan for it. It is clear that the beneficiaries of this war are the Nusayris and the Shiites," he said, using a derogatory term for Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

But he also called for reconciliation, saying ISIL "is extending its hand so that we refrain from attacking each other and so that we can join forces" against Assad and his allies.

The message's authenticity could not be independently confirmed, but the audio was posted on a website commonly used by Islamic militants.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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