An international conference aimed at ending Syria's civil war will be held in Geneva in late November, the head of the Arab League said Sunday, after weeks of diplomacy to bring the opposing sides to the negotiating table.
Even as the announcement was made, violence continued in Syria. A suicide bomber driving an explosives-laden truck blew himself up at a government checkpoint on the edge of the central city of Hama, killing at least 30 people, according to both activists and the state media.
League chief Nabil Elaraby said the Geneva conference, which the US and Russia have been trying to convene for months, would be held on Nov. 23 and 24. The gathering aims to broker a political compromise to end the fighting in a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people, devastated the nation's economy and forced some 2 million Syrians to seek refuge abroad.
Despite Elaraby's remarks at League headquarters in Cairo, it remains unclear whether the warring sides in the conflict are ready to sit down together. Even Elaraby, who spoke to reporters along with Arab League-U.N. envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, acknowledged that the proposed conference still faces "many difficulties."
The main Western-backed opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, is scheduled to hold a meeting on Nov. 1 to decide whether or not to attend a Geneva conference. One of the most prominent factions within the Coalition, the Syrian National Council, has publicly opposed taking part in peace talks with the regime.
In the past, the Coalition has said in the past that it will only negotiate if it is agreed from the start that Assad will leave power at the end of a transition period. Many rebel fighters inside Syria flatly reject negotiating with Assad's regime.
"This is a conspiracy against the Syrian people," said opposition figure Bassam al-Dada. "The most important request of the Syrian people — the distancing of Bashar (Assad) from the transitional period — was ignored," he said.
The Geneva talks have been put off repeatedly for months, in part because of fundamental disagreements over Assad's fate.
The regime has rejected demands for Assad to leave, saying the president will stay at least until the end of his term in mid-2014, and he will decide then whether to seek re-election. The regime has refused to negotiate with the armed opposition.
Islam Alloush, a spokesman for one rebel group, Liwaa al-Islam, said that holding a conference that involved the Syrian regime could make the conflict worse, by emboldening government forces to act more harshly on the ground.
"This is very, very sensitive. We have to be extremely careful," Alloush said. "It could produce more negative results."
Meanwhile, Syrian rebels drove a truck laden with over a ton of explosives into the government post at the eastern entrance of Hama, the state news agency SANA said. A nearby truck carrying gasoline cylinders was caught up in the explosion, prompting a series of other blasts. Footage aired on Syrian television showed rubble, fires, and bodies on the ground.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra had carried out the attack. Both SANA and the Observatory said at least 30 people were killed.
It was the second deadly assault on a checkpoint in two days. On Saturday, rebels led by fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra set off a car bomb while assaulting a checkpoint near Damascus, killing 16 soldiers.
The high-profile role played by Jabhat al-Nusra and other al-Qaida-linked militants, who have become some of the most powerful rebel factions, is yet another obstacle standing in the way of a negotiated settlement.
Also Sunday, activists said they were still searching for news of imprisoned Syrian women who were meant to be freed as part of an ambitious three-way hostage release deal that was implemented Saturday.
A pro-government Syrian newspaper, al-Watan, said Sunday 128 women were released, citing "media sources."
But Syrian activists contacted throughout the country said they had not been able to confirm if any women were freed.
Syrian officials would not comment, and official state media did not mention the issue.
The hostage deal released nine Lebanese Shiites abducted in Syria and two Turkish pilots held hostage in Lebanon. They returned home Saturday night.
The deal, mediated by Qatar and Palestinian officials, also was meant to include freeing dozens of women held in Syrian government jails to satisfy the rebels who abducted the nine Lebanese a year and a half ago. The Turkish pilots were kidnapped in August by gunmen in Lebanon to pressure Turkey to help release the Lebanese pilgrims. Turkey is believed to have some clout with some brigades of Syrian rebels.
Their abductions showed how the chaos from the Syrian civil war, now in its third year, has spilled across the greater Middle East.
The hostage deal is one of the more ambitious negotiated settlements to come out of Syria's civil war, where the warring sides remain largely opposed to any bartered peace. It suggests that the parties — and their regional backers — may be more prepared to deal with each other than at any other previous time in the conflict.