x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Arab League backs Geneva 2 peace talks

League calls on the opposition to form a delegation under the leadership of the mainstream Syrian National Coalition and attend the Geneva 2 talks.

CAIRO // Arab states formally endorsed proposed peace talks to end the Syrian civil war that have been delayed by disputes between world powers and divisions among the opposition.

A final communique after an emergency meeting of Arab League foreign ministers on Sunday called on the opposition swiftly to form a delegation under the leadership of the mainstream Syrian National Coalition, to attend the Geneva 2 talks.

The Arab League’s position indicated Gulf rivals Qatar and Saudi Arabia — who have backed different rebel groups fighting President Bashar Al Assad — had put their differences aside to urge opposition chief Ahmad Jarba to head to Geneva.

But even with regional diplomatic weight thrown behind the talks, it is unclear when they will go ahead and what they can achieve. The mainly exiled political opposition has limited clout over rebel fighters on the ground, who include brigades with links to Al Qaeda.

The Geneva talks are meant to bring Syria’s warring sides to the negotiating table, but many disputes still remain including the issue of whether Iran, Mr Al Assad’s biggest regional supporter, should attend.

Mr Jarba, who is backed by Iran’s foe Saudi Arabia, told Arab foreign ministers the opposition coalition would not attend if Iran was there. He also said there had to be a clear time frame for Assad to leave power, and called for more weapons to be delivered to rebels fighting Mr Assad’s forces.

The growing influence of radical Islamist fighters and divisions among rebel forces have made western powers reluctant to intervene directly in a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people and driven millions from their homes.

Saudi Arabia, the United States’ main Arab ally, opposes any role for Tehran and is angry over what it sees as a weak US commitment to removing Mr Al Assad, especially in the past two months since US president Barack Obama abandoned a threat to launch strikes.

After more than two years of calling for Mr Al Assad’s downfall but taking little action, Mr Obama threatened in August to punish Syria for what he said was government blame for chemical weapons attacks that killed more than 1,000 people. But he quickly called off armed action, accepting instead a Russian proposal that Mr Al Assad give up Syria’s poison gas stocks.

A senior State Department official, speaking ahead of a visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry to Riyadh, said the top US diplomat would make clear to the Saudis that Iran would not be welcome to attend the Syria peace talks unless it endorsed a past agreement that would see Mr Al Assad give up power.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry reiterated on Sunday that it must be up to Syrians alone “to choose their leadership and political future without political interference”.

The Arab League, however, said only pressure from major powers could ensure a successful outcome in Geneva.

In its communique it “reaffirmed the Arab position that demands the necessity of the required international guarantees to supervise and ensure the success of a peaceful solution at the Geneva 2 conference”.

* Agence France-Presse