Russia says Syria peace talks in Geneva set, Syrian rebels not so sure

Russia says the Syrian government is willing to attend a peace conference in Geneva next month. But Syria's rebels doubt much progress is possible.

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) welcomes Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad during a meeting in Moscow, Wednesday. Russian officials say the Syrian government is willing to attend talks with the opposition in Geneva next month.

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Russian officials say they have secured an “in principle” pledge from the Syrian government to attend talks with the opposition in Geneva this June. A political solution to Syria’s two-year conflict has thus far remained elusive.

“We note with satisfaction that we have received an agreement in principle from Damascus to attend the international conference, in the interest of Syrians themselves finding a political path to resolve the conflict, which is ruinous for the nation and region,” Alexander Lukashevich, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, was quoted as saying by Iran’s Press TV.

However, Mr. Lukashevich denied reports that an exact date for the conference has been selected, saying the opposition remains too divided to set a firm date.

Despite the enthusiasm of Russian officials, news of the Syrian government’s apparent willingness to sit for talks has been met by skepticism from within the opposition; members say they will only attend the conference if Assad agrees to step down. The opposition’s Syrian National Coalition also expressed concern that the announcement came from Russia, the Syrian government’s long-time supporter, rather than from the Syrian government itself.

“The fact that it has been announced in Moscow, rather than in Damascus, is a worrying point, as we want to hear the spokesperson of the Syrian government making that statement with clarity,” Louai Safi, a senior member the Syrian opposition, told Al Jazeera. “There is a lot of ambiguity. What does it mean, 'in principle'?"

In June of last year, officials met in Geneva for talks aimed at ending the conflict, reports BBC. The conference ended with an agreement for a truce and the creation of a transitional government, but the results disintegrated because both sides refused to put down their weapons and could not agree on the role Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would play in a new government.

On Friday, opposition leaders gathered for a second day of meetings in Istanbul aimed at electing a new leader and creating a unified position ahead of the Geneva conference. But with memories of the last conference still fresh and Assad showing no signs of plans to step down, there remains much hesitance to engage in talks that many say they worry will likely be a repeat of last summer.

“We know the regime, we know Assad, and we know that he would never quit power without force,” said Ahmed Kamel, a member of the coalition in an article by the New York Times. “We do not have too much illusion.”

Despite Russian assurances that the Syrian government is ready for peace talks, Syrian state television has reported the government may likely ignore joint US-Russian effort for a peaceful political solution. Meanwhile, Assad reportedly told a visiting Tunisian delegation that he is committed to crushing the rebellion. The remarks come after German intelligence officials reported that Syrian government military has regained strength and is set to make major advances.

“I feel it is unlikely that this conference (Geneva 2) would be able to reach a real solution to the Syrian crisis – not because the opposition would not want that, but because the regime does not want that,” said Monzer Makhous, the Syrian opposition’s ambassador in France in an article by Agence France-Presse. “Bashar (al-Assad) would be out of the equation, and the transitional government would be in charge of the security and military files. Anyone capable of analysis can see that the Syrian regime would not accept this equation, though it is the least the opposition is willing to accept.”

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