x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Arab League announces date for Syria peace talks

International talks have been announced for next month however Syrian National Council says it will not negotiate with the Assad regime unless ‘conditions on the ground’ change. Phil Sands reports

Arab League general secretary Nabil Al Arabi (right) and UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, in Cairo. A keenly anticipated peace conference for Syria will convene in Geneva on November 23. AFP
Arab League general secretary Nabil Al Arabi (right) and UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, in Cairo. A keenly anticipated peace conference for Syria will convene in Geneva on November 23. AFP

LONDON // International peace talks to end the war in Syria are scheduled to take place on November 23, the head of the Arab League said on Sunday.

The likelihood of that date being met was, however, immediately called into question by Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy to Syria, who said no firm timetable had been set, and that peace talks could not take place without credible opposition involvement.

“I discussed the Syria file with Lakhdar Brahimi and it was decided that the Geneva meeting would take place on November 23 and arrangements are being made to prepare for this conference,” Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said in Cairo after meeting Mr Brahimi.

“Of course there are many arrangements and many obstacles and difficulties that have to be overcome,” he said.

These obstacles to the much delayed Geneva 2 peace talks, a follow up to the initial Geneva conference of June last year, may prove insurmountable.

The Syrian National Council, a key faction in the Syrian National Coalition, the officially recognised opposition alliance, has said it would not agree to talks with the regime unless “conditions on the ground” change.

More than 110,000 people have been killed since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, according to the United Nations, with thousands more wounded and millions more forced to flee their homes.

On Sunday, rebels drove a lorry laden with more than a tonne of explosives into a government checkpoint on the outskirts of the central city of Hama, killing at least 30 people.

The Qaeda-linked Jabhat Al Nusra carried out the attack, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Rebel units at the forefront of waging the war against Bashar Al Assad’s autocratic regime, are also against negotiations.

“A conference will not be convened without a convincing opposition that represents an important part of Syria’s opposition population,” Mr Brahimi said, although he added that did not mean all opposition factions – there are hundreds of different groups, many armed, some political – need attend.

Mr Brahimi stressed no final date for Geneva 2 could be set until he had met Qatari, Turkish, Iranian, Syrian, Russian and American officials, who would all need to give their agreement.

Indications as to whether that agreement will be forthcoming is likely to emerge from London on Tuesday when a meeting of the “Friends of Syria” group, made up of the Western and Arabian Gulf powers backing the Syrian National Coalition, is due.

If they insist Geneva 2 should go ahead next month, it will heap pressure on the Syrian National Coalition to attend.

“For all the talk of Geneva, I can assure you it is empty, talks cannot succeed and will not succeed, it is just something the big powers are doing so they can tell their public they are trying to stop the war, when really they know it will not stop it,” said a Syrian opposition figure.

“It is a game everyone is playing, it is a public relations exercise, nothing more.”

There appears little room for compromise. Syria’s regime has ruled out any deal that requires Mr Al Assad to step down, while the opposition insists on the end of his family’s repressive four-decade rule.

Saudi Arabia, a major regional supporter of the anti-Assad factions, remains firmly opposed to any negations that might allow Mr Al Assad or his allies to cling to power, according to a political analyst in London who has held talks with various international officials working on Syria.

“What we are hearing is that Saudi will not compromise on this one and that they will do whatever is necessary to see Assad and Iran beaten,” said the analyst.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are two of the key players in the Syria conflict, each a regional powerhouse backing an opposite side. Tehran has given crucial military and financial support to Mr Al Assad, propping up his regime in the face of a spreading rebellion.

Any peace talks without Iranian and Saudi participation seem doomed to fail, and there has been no sign they will both come to the table, or that Iran will even be invited, although a recent diplomatic thaw between Tehran and Washington may aid the prospect of success.

So too may the recent deal between the Washington and Moscow to decommission Syria’s extensive chemical weapons programme – a rare moment of agreement between the US and Russia over Syria.