Diplomats meet to prepare Syria peace conference
US, Russian and UN diplomats gathered in Geneva Wednesday to plan a new international conference aimed at ending the conflict in Syria, as the regime scored a major victory by taking the strategic town of Qusayr.
Joining UN peace envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi at the table were Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman.
The meeting, aimed at paving the way for a new peace conference, comes as France and Britain pointed to proof that President Bashar al-Assad's regime had used the deadly nerve agent sarin.
A UN probe had also found "reasonable grounds" to believe both sides had used chemical weapons.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed last month to push for the conference, which is meant to follow up on an initial Geneva meeting last June that produced a never-implemented power transition plan for Syria.
Washington and Moscow have pledged to work in tandem to bring the Syrian regime and the opposition together for the first time and try to negotiate a political transition to end the war that has left some 94,000 dead.
The initial plan for the talks to be held early this month -- to build on the accord signed in Geneva last June 30 -- has now slipped into July, amid wrangling over the exact guest list and agenda.
The regime has agreed in principle to participate, but Syria's main opposition has refused to attend as long as fighters from Iran and the Islamist-militia Hezbollah are fighting in Syria alongside Assad's forces.
It has also so far reportedly rejected names put forward by the Syrian regime as possible interlocutors, while continuing to demand Assad's departure.
Last year's talks involved top diplomats from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- the United States, China, Russia, France and Britain -- and representatives of Turkey, the Arab League and the European Union.
This time, Russia is pushing hard for Iran, another key Assad ally, to have some kind of role, despite concerns from the West about including the Islamic republic, which it accuses of shoring up the Syrian regime.
On Wednesday, Syria's rebels conceded that they had lost the battle for Qusayr, after the army claimed it had seized total control of it and the surrounding region.
Control of Qusayr was vital for the rebels as it was their principal transit point for weapons and fighters from neighbouring Lebanon.
It is also strategic for the regime because it is located on the road linking Damascus with the coast, its rear base.
© 2013 AFP