Opposition demands answers before joining Syria talks

Opposition demands answers before joining Syria talks


BEIRUT/GENEVA/PARIS (Reuters) - The Syrian opposition is awaiting a response to its demands from the United Nations before deciding whether to attend peace negotiations planned for Friday.

The Syrian government has already agreed to join the talks that U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura hopes to convene in an indirect format in Geneva with the aim of ending the five-year-old war that has killed 250,000 people.

But a Saudi-backed opposition council that includes armed and political opponents of President Bashar al-Assad has yet to decide whether to go. Its presence is seen as vital if the long-awaited negotiations are to go ahead.

While it has expressed support for a political solution, the opposition reiterated demands including a halt to attacks on civilian areas before any negotiations begin.

In a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) also called for the lifting of sieges on blockaded areas.

The HNC, which has convened in Riyadh to decide whether to go to Geneva, is seeking clarification from de Mistura.

"We sent the questions. We are awaiting the response," said an opposition source, who confirmed the letter's authenticity.

Opposition officials have long insisted they cannot agree to negotiations before their conditions are met by the government and its allies as a gesture of goodwill.

Monzer Makhous, an HNC member, said: "We are still in discussion. We are still waiting for de Mistura's response. I can't say if the discussions will be finished today or not. I have mixed feelings."

Another HNC member said de Mistura must clarify the aim of the talks. "There is a problem we would like to clarify with de Mistura. Is the main aim of these negotiations for them to be held or to succeed?" Riyadh Naasan Agha told Al Jazeera TV.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he had spoken to HNC coordinator Riad Hijab and understood the group would attend.

"If I understand their position, they say yes to negotiations," Fabius told France Culture radio, but they wanted clarification on key issues first.

Diplomacy has so far failed to resolve the conflict that has forced millions from their homes, creating a refugee crisis in neighboring states and Europe.


The war has continued unabated as de Mistura tries to launch the peace process endorsed by the Security Council last month.

The Syrian government, aided by Russian air strikes and allied militia including Iranian forces, is gaining ground against rebels in western Syria, this week capturing the town of Sheikh Maskin near the Jordanian border.

Russian air strikes that began on Sept. 30 have tilted the war Assad's way after major setbacks earlier in 2015 brought rebel groups close to the coastal heartland of his Alawite sect.

De Mistura's efforts to convene the talks have already faced problems, including a dispute over who should represent the opposition. While the Saudi-backed HNC includes powerful rebel factions fighting Assad in western Syria, Russia has been demanding wider participation to include the Syrian Kurds.

But de Mistura has not invited the Syrian Kurdish PYD party, which is affiliated to the Kurdish YPG militia that controls wide areas of northern and northeastern Syria and has become an important partner in the U.S.-led war on Islamic State.

Turkey, a major sponsor of the rebellion which views the PYD as a terrorist group, had said it would boycott the talks if the Syrian Kurdish party had been invited.

Fabius said: "The PYD group was causing the most problems, and Mr de Mistura told me he had not sent them an invitation letter."

The PYD's representative in France, Khaled Eissa, who had been on a list of possible delegates proposed by Russia, blamed regional and international powers, in particular Turkey, for blocking the Kurds and forecast the talks would fail.

"You can't neglect a force that controls an area three times the size of Lebanon," he said. "We will not respect any decision taken without our participation."

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said the PYD could join the talks at a later stage. He said the Syrian government delegation would be headed by Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, but there was no immediate confirmation on Syrian state media.

One prominent Syrian opposition figure said he would boycott the talks unless the PYD was invited.

"I'll go with my friends or not (at all). There is no compromise in this question," Haytham Manna told Reuters. Manna is co-leader of an opposition group called the Syrian Democratic Council, which includes the PYD and was formed in December in Kurdish-controlled Hasaka province.

Independent Syrian dissident Jihad Makdissi said he would not attend the initial round of talks in order to help overcome differences over who should represent the opposition.

(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny and John Davison, John Irish, and Omar Fahmy in Cairo; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Giles Elgood)