The international envoy to Syria called on the divided opposition on Friday to overcome differences and agree to attend peace talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, warning the negotiations cannot go forward without them.
UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who wrapped up his five-day visit to Damascus, appeared uncertain about prospects for the meeting expected to take place later this month in Geneva.
The deeply fractured Syrian opposition groups are split on whether to attend the talks. They also disagree over conditions for taking part — from demands for al-Assad to step down right away to guarantees that he would not be part of a negotiated solution for the country’s future.
The opposition is also split between Damascus-based groups who have said they will attend without preconditions, and the exiled opposition, which is more hard-line.
The government has rejected demands that al-Assad step aside, saying he will stay at least until the end of his term in the middle of next year, and will then decide whether to seek re-election. Al-Assad also has said he will not negotiate with armed rebels.
“The Syrian national opposition, armed and unarmed, have all been invited to form a convincing delegation,” Brahimi said in Beirut after arriving from Syria. “I am counting on the Syrian people and those who claim to represent the Syrian people to realize the danger of the situation and for all sides to seek to save Syria and to save their country.”
In New York, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters the aim was to convene the talks “within the month of November.”
UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said “a great deal is being done” to try to unite the opposition.
“Everybody knows that this is difficult,” he said.
Nesirky said Brahimi will meet US and Russian officials in Geneva on Nov. 5 for further discussions. They then will be joined by the other permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, China and France, he said.
The US and Russia have been pushing for a peace conference in November.
The Syrian opposition is made up of different factions, many of them politicians based in exile — the majority of whom are part of the main umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition. The rebels are a mix of various groups, from the mainstream Free Syrian Army to the extremist, but powerful and effective al-Qaeda-linked groups. That has made negotiations difficult.
The push for peace talks came as Syrian troops captured Safira, a strategic town in northern Syria, on Friday after weeks of intense battles, pushing rebels from a sprawling military complex believed to store chemical weapons.
The capture of Safira follows recent victories by government forces mainly around Damascus and the embattled province of Aleppo where the town is located. Earlier this month, troops captured the nearby town of Khanaser, opening a key road linking the central heartland with Aleppo. Rebels had been in control of Safira for more than a year.
Government forces also have pushed rebels further from the desert road used to send supplies to government-held areas in the north.
“The main aim of the offensive was to secure the defense factories and the second to secure the road used to send army supplies,” said an Aleppo-based activist who goes by the name Abu Raed. “The battle over the defense factories is over,” said the man, suggesting it would not be possible for rebels to attack the complex after government troops captured Safira.
More than 120,000 people have been killed so far in the war, now in its third year, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Observatory, a Britain-based watchdog that closely monitors the war through a network of activists in the country.
The UN said in July that 100,000 Syrians have been killed, and has not updated that figure since. Millions of Syrians have fled their homes because of the fighting.