Key figures gather in Switzerland ahead of Syrian peace talks

Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Council will be included at a ‘later stage’

Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem has been invited to head the government delegation to UN-brokered peace talks due to open in Geneva on Friday, Russian deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov said on Wednesday. If Muallem comes, it would amount to an upgrade of the government team, originally consisting of deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad and UN ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari.

Mr Gatilov also said that the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Council had not been invited to the talks at this stage but UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, who issued invitations, would include them at a “later stage”.

A Kurdish presence had become an obstacle to the start of talks due to objections from Turkey, which accuses the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union, a key component of the council, of being an offshoot of the rebel Turkish Kurdish Workers Party, which is fighting for autonomy from Ankara.

No preconditions

Although Mr de Mistura has said there can be no preconditions for the talks, the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC), formed in


Saudi Arabia

, last month continues to demand prisoner releases and a halt to government sieges and bombardments of insurgent-held towns before negotiations begin.

The 15-member HNC team, dominated by armed fundamentalist factions, was, reportedly, divided on attendance, extending debate until Thursday.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said, however, that he had learned from HNC chairman Riad Hijab that the team would participate. The Riyadh-formed group is likely to be the main representative of armed factions, particularly during priority ceasefire negotiations. These are to be followed by the formation of a national unity government, which will draft a new constitution and hold elections.

The list of independent opposition figures likely to be present has changed from day to day, with hopefuls such as Kurdish chief Salih Muslim waiting in Lausanne and Geneva hotels for invitations. Veteran human rights activist Haytham Manna, who belongs to the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Council, headed by Mr Muslim, has said he would not participate until Mr Muslim and council co-chairwoman Ilham Ahmed are invited.


The council’s exclusion from opening sessions amounts to a defeat for


, which had insisted on its participation. The council’s US-backed military wing is the most successful force fighting Islamic State in northern


and is expected to play a key role in trying to drive the group from its capital at Raqqa.

Independents expected to attend include the Russian nominee and former Syrian deputy premier for economic affairs Qadri Jamil; defected diplomat Jihad Makdisi; secular activist Randa Kassis; Assyrian Christian Nimrod Suleiman; and Syrian tribal council coordinator Abbas Habib.

The first round of talks, if convened, are expected to last two to three weeks, followed by a pause for consultations, and will continue in this fashion for six months.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times