DAMASCUS: Prospects for a Syria peace conference in Geneva next month looked dim Wednesday after key opposition leaders spurned efforts by Western and Arab powers to persuade them to attend.
A meeting in London between the opposition leaders and 11 key countries of the so-called Friends of Syria on Tuesday produced little more than an accord that Syrian President Bashar Assad should play no future role in government.
But leaders of the National Coalition — the main opposition umbrella group — insisted they would not take part in a conference in late November if any regime members were there, sticking to their demand that Assad’s departure was essential.
A defiant Assad has shown no sign of backing down after a two-and-a-half-year civil war that has left more than 115,000 people dead, saying he was ready to run for re-election in 2014.
Assad has systematically refused to recognize the Coalition as a legitimate negotiating partner and rejected its demands for him to step down.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the London meeting had urged the Coalition to “commit itself fully” to the so-called Geneva 2 talks.
He said the Friends of Syria agreed that they would put their “united and collective weight” behind efforts to form a transitional government and that “Assad would play no role in that future government of Syria.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry took a similar position, saying Assad had “lost all legitimacy.”
But he too urged the opposition to go to Geneva, saying Syria was at risk of “implosion” if the war continued and that the only alternative to a negotiated settlement was “continued if not increased killing.”
The opposition is due to meet at the start of November to finalize its position on the Geneva talks, which would be a follow-up to a conference held there in June 2012.
But coalition head Ahmad Jarba appeared to be in no mood to compromise. “The only thing we are willing to negotiate is a transfer of all power and then the departure of the mass killer (Assad),” he said.
“If what is asked is a way out that leads to the fall of the criminal Assad and the handover of power and for the war criminals on all sides to be put on trial, we welcome Geneva 2.”
And he said the talks could only succeed if humanitarian corridors are opened to two Damascus suburbs and the Old City of Homs under siege by the army, and if women and children in detention be freed.
“We cannot sit at the negotiating table while, in some areas, children are dying of hunger and women are being tortured in jails.”
Notably absent from the London meeting was key Syria ally Russia, which has dismissed such gatherings in the past, saying they do not represent all the Syrian people.
Washington and Moscow have been trying to organize the Geneva conference on the heels of the deal they reached for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons after a deadly poison gas attack in August widely blamed on Damascus.
But Assad dealt an early blow to peace hopes, saying in an interview Monday that the factors are not in place for the conference to succeed.
“No time has been set, and the factors are not yet in place if we want (Geneva 2) to succeed,” Assad told Lebanon-based satellite channel Al-Mayadeen, adding that there was no guarantee about “which forces are taking part.”
UN-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi will meet again on November 5 with US and Russian officials to prepare for the Geneva talks, the UN announced Tuesday.
That meeting will be followed by one with the other three permanent members of the UN Security Council — Britain, China and France, according to UN spokesman Martin Nesirky.
In other developments, prominent human rights activist Sema Nassar told AFP Wednesday that Syrian authorities have released 14 women detainees as part of a weekend hostage exchange but that dozens of others are still being held.
Nine Lebanese Shiite hostages held by a rebel group in northern Syria were exchanged on Saturday for two Turkish pilots abducted in retaliation.
And the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighting in Quneitra province, near the Israeli border, had killed and wounded 20 loyalists, while militants said there was fighting in various parts of the Damascus suburb of Moadamiyet Al-Sham.