Diplomats gather in Geneva to salvage Syria peace conference
The UN-Arab League envoy to Syria will meet with senior diplomats in Geneva on Tuesday in a new bid to prepare a long-delayed peace conference amid continued wrangling over who will take part.
Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi will first hold talks with Russian deputy foreign ministers Gennady Gatilov and Mikhail Bogdanov and US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman early Tuesday.
Later in the day, the meeting will be broadened to include representatives of the three other permanent members of the UN Security Council -- China, France and Britain.
The talks in the Swiss city aim to pave the way for a new international conference focused on ending the spiralling 31-month conflict in Syria, which has killed more than 120,000 people and forced millions more to flee their homes.
Hoping to build on the momentum of a US-Russia accord reached in September to destroy Syria's chemical arsenal by mid-2014, Brahimi has been criss-crossing the region to rally support for the conference, dubbed Geneva II.
But late Monday Syria's information minister declared that the regime would not take part in the proposed conference if the aim is for the Syrian president to give up power.
"We will not go to Geneva to hand over power as desired by (Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud) al-Faisal and certain opponents abroad," said Omran al-Zohbi in comments carried by the official SANA news agency.
"President Bashar al-Assad will remain head of state," he said.
The comments came after US Secretary of State John Kerry met his Saudi counterpart in Riyadh on Monday to smooth over differences on Syria,
While Kerry reiterated that Washington opposes military intervention to end the bloodshed in Syria, Prince Saud said negotiations "shouldn't just go on indefinitely", in reference to the proposed peace conference.
Syria's ever more splintered opposition has refused to attend peace talks unless Assad's resignation is put up for discussion -- a demand rejected by Damascus.
Some rebel groups have also warned that any participants would be considered traitors.
"We hope it will take place in the next few weeks, not next year," Brahimi told reporters last week after a brief meeting with Assad in Damascus.
Striving for a 'definitive date'
The conference is meant to follow up on a meeting last year that produced a never-implemented transition plan for the war-ravaged country.
It was initially planned for June, but has been repeatedly delayed amid stark disagreement over who should have a seat at the table.
Word in diplomatic circles has long been that the conference would be held on November 23, although the United Nations has never confirmed that date.
Brahimi said late last week that he and the high-level US and Russian diplomats, as well as possibly representatives of other countries, would strive Tuesday to "agree on a definitive date, which will be announced in the coming days."
The veteran Algerian diplomat had said after meeting Assad last Wednesday that the Syrian government had agreed to take part in the talks while the opposition was "trying to find a way to be represented".
"If the opposition does not participate there will be no Geneva conference," he had warned.
Arab League foreign ministers meanwhile gathered in Cairo on Sunday to push the Syrian opposition to attend Geneva II.
Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah appealed to his Arab League counterparts to "reach a common position concerning the negotiation process" so that "the Syrian regime will not be given another chance to play with the blood of the Syrian people".
At the start of the Cairo meeting, Ahmed Jarba, who heads the main umbrella opposition National Coalition, emphasised the group's commitment to attending Geneva II only as a united front and reiterated its unequivocal demand for a ceasefire during the talks.
The coalition has said it plans to meet in Istanbul on Saturday to decide whether to attend the Geneva peace talks, but the Syrian National Council, a key member of the bloc, has threatened to quit if it does so.
© 2013 AFP