Syrian regime agrees to take part in peace talks

Damascus names envoys to attend Russian-US sponsored conference

Demonstrators carry a poster depicting a caricature of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Lebanon’s Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah during a protest in Kafranbel, near Idlib, yesterday. Photograph: Raed al-Fares/Reuters

Demonstrators carry a poster depicting a caricature of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Lebanon’s Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah during a protest in Kafranbel, near Idlib, yesterday. Photograph: Raed al-Fares/Reuters

 

Syria’s government has agreed in principle to participate in the Russian-US sponsored international conference aimed at ending the conflict in Syria, Moscow announced yesterday.

Damascus had already named its team of five ministers, including prime minister Wael al-Halqi and deputy prime minister Qadri Jamil, who is considered close to Moscow.

Although June 10th has been mentioned as the date for the meeting, Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said it is impossible to fix the date because there “is no clarity about who will speak for the opposition”.

He said that “everything is being done” by the opposition and its regional allies to torpedo the Geneva conference or see that it fails but spoke of the determination of the US and Russia to ensure that the sides begin talks.


Negotiations
Hard-line members of the expatriate opposition National Coalition backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar have refused negotiations on a transition while President Bashar al-Assad is in power. Others are ready to speak to is representatives.

Recent gains on the field of battle by government forces seem to have strengthened the president’s bargaining position, prompting him to suggest he could remain until the presidential election in 2014 and could stand again.

The coalition is to conclude three days of talks in Istanbul on possible participation in the conference. Burhan Ghalioun, Paris-based academic and candidate for coalition president, said the opposition could not absent itself from Geneva because President Assad could gain an advantage by attending, even though the gathering was unlikely to achieve agreement on ending the conflict and removing the Assad government.

The coalition’s 60-member Muslim Brotherhood-dominated governing body is also expected to appoint a new president, add secular members and decide the fate of a provisional government under premier- designate Ghassan Hitto, Qatar’s protégé.

A 16-point phased peace proposal put forward for former coalition president Moaz al-Khatib was dismissed by the body although President Assad was called upon to hand over power and leave the country within 30 days of acceptance of the plan.

Clearly frustrated by the coalition’s continuing divisions, a European diplomat said: “The international community is walking a little faster than the opposition [and] wants to see a complete list of participants from the Syrian side . . . this means that the coalition has to sort out its affairs.”


Prison fired upon
In Aleppo, rebels have fired rockets and mortars at the prison, killing and wounding several inmates, pro-government media reported. This attack took place a week after rebels mounted a failed raid on the prison in a bid to free political detainees.

In the Lebanese port of Tripoli, the death toll after six days of sectarian clashes between pro- and anti-Assad militiamen has risen to 24. In addition, shells have landed in the Akkar region between Tripoli and the Lebanese-Syrian border where local leader have attempted to keep the peace.

Iran has denied accusations that it has troops fighting in Syria and rejected the call from pro-rebel western and Arab governments for the withdrawal of Iranian troops said to be bolstering the Syrian army and Lebanese Hizbullah fighters in the battle for the strategic town of Qusayr near Lebanon’s border.