x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Syria finally agrees to attend peace talks

The Syrian government has agreed in principle to take part in an international conference in Geneva next month aimed at ending the country's civil war, its foreign minister says.

BAGHDAD // The Syrian government has agreed in principle to take part in an international conference in Geneva next month aimed at ending the country's civil war, its foreign minister said yesterday.

The comments by Walid Al Moallem marked the first direct confirmation that the regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad is ready to send representatives to the UN-sponsored conference.

Late last week, Syria ally Russia said the regime is willing to participate.

The statement puts more pressure on Syria's main opposition bloc, the Syrian National Coalition, to signal acceptance as well. The group was meeting in Istanbul for the fourth day yesterday to come up with a unified position on the proposed peace talks, elect new leaders and expand membership.

Much about the conference remains up in the air, including its date, agenda and list of participants. There are also still yawning gaps between the two sides on what the meeting should accomplish.

Syrian opposition leaders have said they are willing to attend the Geneva talks, but that Mr Al Assad's departure from power must top the agenda of any political transition.

Mr Al Assad said earlier this month that his future won't be determined by international talks and that he will only step down after elections are held.

Louay Safi, a senior opposition member, said yesterday that those conditions still stand, but that the coalition currently is bogged down with disagreements over expansion and can't issue a definitive statement on participation in the Geneva talks.

Mr Al Moallem said yesterday that talks in Geneva present a "good opportunity for a political solution for the crisis in Syria," but did not say under what terms the Assad government would dispatch representatives.

He spoke at a joint news conference with his Iraqi counterpart in Baghdad, where he was making an unannounced visit.

Despite such upbeat comments, the Syrian opposition's western and Arab allies are skeptical about the regime's commitment to negotiations. They have warned Mr al Assad that they will step up aid to Syrian rebels if the regime does not negotiate in good faith.

The European Union, meanwhile, may end this week either helping Syrian rebels or the Damascus government they detest, depending on how EU ministers resolve differences over a package of sanctions on Syria that is about to lapse.

At a meeting in Brussels today, the main EU military powers, Britain and France, will argue forcefully for easing some of that embargo to help channel weapons to rebels fighting Mr Al Assad. But Austria, Sweden and several others will defend maintaining the sanctions across the board.

Failure to find a compromise could mean the entire package simply vanishes when it expires on June 1- London has already raised the stakes by threatening to veto a full renewal.

But it is unlikely the EU will offer such a shot in the arm to Mr Al Assad by giving up on measures intended to cripple his government's ability to trade and raise money and also to curb the movements and personal wealth of his family and confidants.

The debate over the arms embargo has gained urgency because of recent military gains by Mr Al Assad's troops against rebels whose political goal in ending the Mr Al Assad dynasty's authoritarian rule the 27-nation European Union has endorsed diplomatically.

Opponents say taking a decision now to allow arms to be sent to the rebels could undermine next month's planned international peace conference, sponsored by the United States and Russia, and they are using this as an argument to extend the full embargo.

* Associated Press with additional reports from Reuters