Prospects for a Syria peace conference in Geneva, Switzerland, next month looked dim yesterday after key opposition leaders spurned efforts by Western and Arab powers to persuade them to attend.
A meeting in London between the Syrian opposition leaders and 11 key countries of the so-called Friends of Syria group on Tuesday produced little more than an accord that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should play no future role in government.
However, leaders of the Syrian National Coalition — the main opposition umbrella group — insisted they would not take part in a conference late next month if any regime members were there, sticking to their demand that al-Assad’s departure was essential.
A defiant al-Assad has shown no sign of backing down after a two-and-a-half-year civil war that has left more than 115,000 people dead, saying he was ready to run for re-election next year.
Al-Assad has systematically refused to recognize the Coalition as a legitimate negotiating partner and rejected its demands for him to step down.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the London meeting had urged the coalition to “commit itself fully” to the so-called Geneva 2 talks.
He said the Friends of Syria agreed that they would put their “united and collective weight” behind efforts to form a transitional government and that “[al-]Assad would play no role in that future government of Syria.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry took a similar position, saying al-Assad had “lost all legitimacy.”
However, he too urged the opposition to go to Geneva, saying Syria was at risk of “implosion” if the war continued and that the only alternative to a negotiated settlement was “continued if not increased killing.”
The opposition is due to meet at the start of next month to finalize its position on the Geneva talks, which would be a follow-up to a conference held there in June last year.
However, coalition head Ahmad Jarba appeared to be in no mood to compromise.
“The only thing we are willing to negotiate is a transfer of all power and then the departure of the mass killer [al-Assad],” he said. “If what is asked is a way out that leads to the fall of the criminal Assad and the handover of power and for the war criminals on all sides to be put on trial, we welcome Geneva 2.”
He also said the talks could only succeed if humanitarian corridors are opened to two Damascus suburbs and the Old City in Homs under siege by the Syrian army, and if women and children in detention be freed.
“We cannot sit at the negotiating table while, in some areas, children are dying of hunger and women are being tortured in jails,” he said.
Notably absent from the London meeting was key Syria ally Russia, which has dismissed such gatherings in the past, saying they do not represent all the Syrian people.
Washington and Moscow have been trying to organize the Geneva conference on the heels of the deal they reached for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons after a deadly poison gas attack in August widely blamed on Damascus.