The offer was dismissed by some of President Bashar al-Assad's
disparate opponents, whose very attendance at the talks due to start
on Wednesday in Switzerland remained in doubt, despite fresh
assurances from Washington that negotiations would lead to Assad's
departure from power.
After nearly three years of war, and over 100,000 deaths, however,
Assad's forces have been making gains, helped by in-fighting among
the rebels as well as support from Iran and new arms and equipment
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, visiting Moscow, said he
gave Russian officials a plan for a truce in Aleppo, Syria's biggest
city, where government forces have been unable to dislodge rebels
over the past year. He also said Damascus was ready to exchange
prisoners, something rebels want.
Moscow and Washington, which respectively protected and opposed
Assad since the uprising in 2011, have urged both sides to make
concessions, including ceasefires, access for aid and prisoner
exchanges, to build confidence before the conference.
But there is little sign of coherent negotiating positions — nor of
violence abating. Rebels are fighting each other, in battles
involving Islamist militants whose influence has cooled Western
support for the uprising. Assad's forces, once reeling, have
recovered and have been bolstered lately by new Russian arms and
supplies, sources have told Reuters.
Jamal al-Ward, head of the military office of the exiled opposition
National Coalition, said a ceasefire in Aleppo was in the rebels'
interest, "but we don't believe that the regime is serious about
going through with this".
Most of the disparate rebel forces fighting inside Syria have
dismissed the negotiations, known as Geneva-2.
The National Coalition, which is backed by Western and Arab powers,
began a delayed meeting in Turkey on Friday to decide whether to
take part. Their discussions were due to resume on Saturday and it
remained unclear how or when they would reach a final decision.
"The outcome is finely balanced, but I expect a Yes vote," said a
Western diplomat following the talks, adding that the United States,
Britain and other Western backers had told the Coalition that a No
vote would have unwelcome consequences.
"We haven't used the language of threats," he said. "But we have
made clear the decision on Geneva is a big one and it will be
difficult to deliver on military and political strategy if they
U.S. APPEALS TO REBELS
The National Coalition, a fractious 120-member body, has already
seen some of its members declare their hostility to joining the
talks starting at Montreux — many for fear it will undermine their
credibility at home to engage in a process they see as having little
chance of forcing Assad to step down.
Washington, the co-sponsor with Moscow, issued an 11th-hour appeal
to Assad's opponents to participate in what would be the first
direct talks to end a war that has made millions homeless and
inflamed tensions across the region and beyond.
"I believe as we begin to get to Geneva, and begin to get into this
process, that it will become clear there is no political solution
whatsoever if Assad is not discussing a transition and if he thinks
he is going to be part of that future," U.S. Secretary of State John
Kerry said in Washington.
"We are also not out of options with respect to what we may be able
to do to increase the pressure and further change the calculus," he
added, without giving details.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at a news conference with
Moualem on Friday, criticized the Syrian opposition for its delay in
agreeing to take part: "It worries us very much that some kind of
game is being played," he said.
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Moualem said the proposals from Syria could ease the conflict: "We
would like this to serve as an example to other towns," he said of
the ceasefire plan for Aleppo.
Opposition members meeting in Turkey were skeptical. "We have zero
confidence ... that any cessation of their massacres on densely
populated areas would go ahead," senior coalition member Mustafa
Sabbagh, told Reuters.
Lavrov, who also met Iran's foreign minister on Thursday, called
again for Tehran, Assad's main sponsor in the region, to be
represented at the conference. Other powers have resisted this on
the grounds that Iran has not endorsed the view of a first Geneva
meeting in 2012 that an interim administration should be established
in Damascus to end the conflict.
REBELS FIGHT EACH OTHER
In the latest fighting, rebels ousted an al Qaeda-linked faction
from one of its northwestern bastions on Friday, activists said, a
significant blow to the group after two weeks of battles that have
undercut the revolt against Assad.
Clashes this month have killed more than 1,000, according to Syrian
Observatory for Human Rights monitors, and helped Assad's forces
claw back territory around Aleppo.
On Friday, the Observatory and activists said the Islamic State in
Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had pulled out of the northern town of
Saraqeb, strategically important because it straddles highways
connecting Aleppo, Damascus and Assad's coastal stronghold of
"They burned their cars before the withdrawal and pulled out after
covering fire from a brigade loyal to them," the British-based
Rival insurgents — including many from the Islamic Front, a large
alliance of some of Syria's most powerful rebel groups — had been
fighting to take the town for days and moved tanks and
machinegun-mounted pickups against ISIL about a week ago.
Local resentment toward ISIL, a reinvigorated version of al Qaeda in
Iraq, had been growing over their kidnapping and killing of
opponents and attempts to impose an uncompromising interpretation of
Islamic law in territory under their control.
ISIL, which draws strength from a core of battle-hardened foreign
Islamists and which has been active in Iraq, also angered fellow
rebels by seizing territory from rival groups.
But the group's loss of Saraqeb, while significant, is unlikely to
bring the fighting much closer to an end. ISIL still controls large
amounts of territory.
The conflict has spilled over Syria's borders. Rocket fire into the
Lebanese border town of Arsal killed at least seven people on
Friday, Lebanon's state news agency said, in one of several such
salvoes to hit towns near Syria.
(Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz, Dominic Evans and Erika
Solomon in Beirut, Rami Bleibel in Hermel, Lebanon, Lesley Wroughton
in Washington, Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and
Jonathan Saul in London; writing by Alastair Macdonald; editing by
Giles Elgood and Philippa Fletcher)
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