The Syrian government has already agreed to join the talks that
U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura hopes to convene in an indirect format
in Geneva with the aim of ending the five-year-old war that has
killed 250,000 people.
But a Saudi-backed opposition council that includes armed and
political opponents of President Bashar al-Assad has yet to decide
whether to go. It viewed its invitation "positively", but said it
had requested clarifications from U.N. Secretary General Ban
The High Negotiations Committee (HNC) was meeting in Riyadh for a
second day on Wednesday to decide its stance. "We sent the
questions. We are awaiting the response," said an opposition source
familiar with the proceedings in Riyadh.
The source said their most important question covered the
implementation of steps outlined in a U.N. Security Council
resolution that endorsed the peace process. These include the
lifting of blockades on besieged areas, a halt to attacks on
civilian areas, and a release of arbitrarily detained people.
Opposition officials had repeatedly said they could not agree to
negotiations before such steps were taken by the government and its
allies to show goodwill.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he had spoken to HNC
coordinator Riad Hijab and understood they would attend.
"I spoke to Mr. Hijab ... he will respond to de Mistura and Ban
Ki-moon this morning," Fabius told France Culture radio. "If I
understand their position, they say yes to negotiations."
Diplomacy has so far failed to resolve the conflict that has forced
millions from their homes, spawning a refugee crisis in neighboring
states and Europe. De Mistura is the third international envoy for
Syria. His two predecessors - Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi - both
The war has continued unabated as de Mistura tries to launch the
peace process endorsed by the Security Council last month.
The Syrian government, aided by Russian air strikes and allied
militia including Iranian forces, is gaining ground against rebels
in western Syria, this week capturing the town of Sheikh Maskin near
the Jordanian border.
Russian air strikes that began on Sept. 30 have tilted the war
Assad's way after major setbacks earlier in 2015 brought rebel
groups close to the coastal heartland of his Alawite sect.
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De Mistura's bid to convene the talks has already faced problems,
including a dispute over who should represent the opposition. While
the Saudi-backed HNC includes powerful rebel factions fighting Assad
in western Syria, Russia has been demanding wider participation to
include the Syrian Kurds.
But de Mistura has not invited the Syrian Kurdish PYD party, which
is affiliated to the Kurdish YPG militia that controls wide areas of
northern and northeastern Syria and has become an important partner
in the U.S.-led war on Islamic State.
Turkey, a major sponsor of the rebellion which views the Syrian
Kurdish PYD party as a terrorist group, had said it would boycott
the talks if had been invited.
Fabius said: "The PYD group was causing the most problems, and Mr de
Mistura told me he had not sent them an invitation letter."
The PYD's representative in France, Khaled Eissa, who had been on a
list of possible delegates proposed by Russia, blamed regional and
international powers, in particular Turkey, for blocking the Kurds
and forecast the talks would fail.
"You can't neglect a force that controls an area three times the
size of Lebanon," he said. "We will not respect any decision taken
without our participation."
One prominent Syrian opposition figure said he would boycott the
talks unless the PYD was invited.
"I'll go with my friends or not (at all). There is no compromise in
this question," Haytham Manna told Reuters. Manna is co-leader of an
opposition group called the Syrian Democratic Council, which
includes the PYD and was formed in December in Kurdish-controlled
Independent Syria dissident Jihad Makdissi said would not attend the
initial round of talks in order to help overcome differences over
who should represent the opposition.
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny, John Irish; Writing by Tom
Perry; Editing by Giles Elgood)
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