x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

West agrees no role for Assad in Syria’s future, says opposition leader

The Western-backed 'Friends of Syria' grouping has agreed that Syrian president Bashar Al Asad will have no role in the country's future, according to an opposition leader.

PARIS // The leader of Syria’s opposition National Coalition, said on Sunday that the Western-backed “Friends of Syria” grouping had agreed that President Bashar Al Assad and his family will have no role in the country’s future.

Ahmad Jarba did not announce whether or not the opposition would take part in peace talks with representatives of Mr Al Assad’s regime due to start next week in Switzerland.

The coalition, which is under intense pressure to confirm its participation, has said it will decide on the issue on January 17.

“We are at a crossroads today in the framework of international decisions regarding the Syrian revolution,” Mr Al Jarba said. “We have passed a milestone on the way to the end of the regime.”

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius implicitly acknowledged that it was still uncertain that the opposition would be represented at the so-called Geneva II peace talks scheduled to start on January 22 in Montreux.

“It is important that the Geneva II meeting takes place and succeeds,” Mr Fabius said. “The only solution to the Syrian drama is a political solution.”

In a statement issued at the end of Sunday’s talks, the 11-nation Friends of Syria urged the opposition to respond positively to UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s invitation to send a delegation to the Montreux talks.

The Swiss talks have been organised in an attempt to revive a long-stalled framework for peace involving a cessation of hostilities and the creation of a national transitional government that could involve figures from the current regime and the opposition.

But the opposition is wary of being drawn into a process they fear could result in Mr Al Assad clinging on to power and have yet to give a commitment to attending.

Mr Al Jarba has called for Mr Al Assad to stop using heavy weapons, lift sieges on a number of opposition-held areas and allow the opening of humanitarian corridors as a show of good faith ahead of any talks.

There has been no sign of progress on those issues but US officials have expressed confidence that, with little prospect of securing a military victory after nearly three years of fighting, the opposition will come to Montreux.

“I think in the final analysis they won’t want to miss that opportunity, because frankly there’s no other game, really,” a US diplomat said.

The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said it was vital the opposition came to the negotiating table.

“I know that it is not an easy decision for the opposition in Syria,” he said. “We want to work to convince them today in Paris and remove the last obstacles that may arise.

“We must get down to work in earnest. I fear that we will not be successful if we do not manage to include the opposition in these talks.”

The balance of power in the conflict in Syria appears to have tipped in Mr Al Assad’s favour over the last week as deadly clashes have erupted between the mainstream opposition and an Al Qaeda-linked group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), with which they were previously allied.

On Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said that fierce fighting between the militants and rival rebel groups in Syria have killed at least 700 and led to the disappearance of hundreds more.

“From January 3 to 11, the fighting killed 697 people, among them 351 rebel fighters, 246 members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and 100 civilians,” said the Observatory, adding dozens more deaths have yet to be documented.

The fighting has exacerbated concern in western capitals over the strength of radical Islamist groups within the broad alliance of forces fighting Mr Al Assad.

Hopes of progress towards peace in Syria rose last year when Mr Al Assad agreed to give up the regime’s chemical weapons after the US pulled back from the brink of threatened military intervention.

Opposition leaders fear that deal, which involved Syria’s ally Russia becoming a pivotal player in the efforts to end the conflict, has diluted the West’s determination to see Mr Al Assad removed from power.

Among the other issues due to be discussed on Sunday was whether Iran, an important backer of Mr Al Assad, will have any role in peace talks further down the line.

Russia has been lobbying for Tehran to be brought into the process and the issue is likely to dominate discussions on Monday between Mr Kerry, his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria.

As well as the US and hosts France, the countries taking part in Sunday’s meeting were Britain, Egypt, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

* Agence France-Presse