A bit late but Syrian peace talks are on, says Kerry

But rival camps still cannot agree on who should represent opposition

DAVOS/GENEVA • Syrian peace talks will go ahead in Geneva, US Secretary of State John Kerry has insisted, but with just days to go, rival camps are bickering about who should be invited to take part.

Mr Kerry on Thursday conceded that the timetable may slip from a planned start on Monday, but there would be no fundamental delay, he said, and UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura would be sending out invitations tomorrow.

"What will happen is on Monday, there will be some discussions (in Geneva), but I would say that by Tuesday and Wednesday, people will be able to get there. We just see this as logistical," Mr Kerry told journalists during a roundtable discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos. "We are just kind of lining pieces up a little bit here. So we'll see where we are."

With no military solution in sight after almost five years of war and more than 250,000 deaths, Mr Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday agreed the talks should go ahead despite no apparent agreement on who should represent the opposition.

Mr Kerry said initial sessions would be "proximity talks", not a face-to-face meeting of participants in the same room. "You are not going to have a situation where they are sitting down at the table staring at each other or shouting at each other; you are going to have to build some process here, and that's what will begin," he said.

Countries backing the talks, including the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, are still at odds over which of the fighting groups should be branded as "terrorists".

Russia and Iran, which support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have rejected attempts by Saudi Arabia, which like the US and European powers opposes him, to organise the opposition's delegation for the talks.

Russia wants the opposition negotiating team expanded to include other figures that could be deemed closer to its own thinking as well as the main Syrian Kurdish party, the PYD, and the affiliated YPG militia.

But the opposition has said it will boycott the Geneva negotiations if Russia insists on such a shake-up.

Among Russia's objections is the inclusion of Mr Mohamad Alloush as chief negotiator for the opposition. He is a member of the politburo of Jaysh al-Islam (Islam Army), a major rebel faction which Moscow considers a terrorist group.

But many of Mr Assad's foes view Jaysh al-Islam as a legitimate part of the opposition. Mr Alloush insists the Syrian government must halt attacks on civilians and end blockades before the talks can go ahead.

A Russian diplomat said that if the Alloush delegation boycotted the Geneva talks, the Syrian government would simply negotiate with an alternative opposition delegation favoured by Russia. The last day to start the talks is Jan 29, the diplomat said.

A Western diplomat dismissed the Russian comments and said that without the opposition there would be no talks to speak of, while Mr Alloush said some of Russia's choices for an opposition delegation, such as the PYD, should sit with the government.

"How can talks happen with just one side?" Mr Alloush said.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, also speaking in Davos, accused Russia of jeopardising the talks by insisting on the inclusion of "terrorist groups"such as the YPG.

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, meanwhile, said that 10 opposition delegates are members of Al-Qaeda - one of three groups he wants barred from the talks.

And a senior French diplomat said there must be a credible framework in place before the talks can take place and, if more time was needed, the UN should consider it.

"What we don't want is to repeat the previous experience of Geneva 2," the diplomat said, referring to negotiations in 2014 that failed after just a few days.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2016, with the headline 'A bit late but Syrian peace talks are on, says Kerry'. Print Edition | Subscribe