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Secular Syrian alliance demands seat at peace talks table

A recently formed secular Kurdish-Arab alliance demanded Sunday that the United Nations give it a seat at the table in upcoming Syria peace talks in Geneva.

“For us, it is very important that all components of the Syrian opposition have equal rights to participate in the future negotiations,” said Haytham Mannaa, the co-head of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC).

“We are ready to participate in any negotiation under the umbrella of (UN Special Envoy for Syria) Staffan De Mistura,” he told AFP, as the organisation wrapped up a two-day meeting in Geneva.

His comments came amid speculation over whether the new alliance would receive a seat at the table in the new round of UN-hosted Syria peace talks in Geneva set to start on January 25.

The talks are part of an ambitious 18-month plan endorsed by the UN Security Council to end Syria’s brutal nearly five-year civil war, which has killed more than 260,000 people.

The SDC was only formed a month ago, but has quickly risen to prominence due to its links to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters battling jihadists in northeast Syria.

But Mannaa acknowledged De Mistura had yet to offer the group, which is dominated by Kurds but also includes representatives of a broad range of other communities, a seat at the table.

He said he and other SDC members were scheduled to meet with the Swedish-Italian diplomat, as well as US and Russian representatives this week in Geneva to discuss the matter.

He said he wanted to see SDC invited in its own right, and said he was opposed to what seemed to be De Mistura’s desire to have a few SDC members simply included in a delegation put forward by the armed and political opposition groups which last month held a landmark meeting in Riyadh.

The Riyadh conference saw anti-regime factions agree to negotiate with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while insisting he must step down at the start of a transition period.

Mannaa said the SDC did not want to be grouped with the Riyadh body, insisting elements of it “are against a political solution (in Syria) and will come just to sabotage the talks”.

The SDC, by contrast, he said, was deeply committed to reaching a political settlement through peaceful, multilateral negotiations, with the aim of creating a political system with a separation of powers and separation between religion and the state.

He also said the group was striving to be as inclusive as possible, pointing out that about one third of its members were women, including co-head Ilham Ahmad.