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Syria opposition says US ready to announce new initiative for peace

Syrian opposition says it will attend upcoming 'Geneva' peace talks in Vienna
Nasr Hariri, chief negotiator for Syria's main opposition, poses for a photograph in central London on Tuesday (Reuters)

LONDON - Nearly seven years into the Syrian war, the opposition says its ongoing struggle to persuade the world to invest in a political solution appears to have been given a new lease of life.

Fresh from meetings in Washington DC and New York last week, the Syrian opposition chief Nasr al-Hariri spoke in London on Wednesday, seemingly confident that the US has a newfound sense of purpose in the political process.

“We felt that there is something new,” Hariri said, after his meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

“They want to take the leadership, the initiative, to push the political process,” he added, speaking at an All Party Parliamentary Group Friends of Syria briefing.  

“Mr Tillerson will speak today or tomorrow, and will make a clear speech only about the new American policy on Syria,” Hariri added.

'The regime and its allies will continue to gas, starve and bomb innocent children into submission. Many more will die. And international law will become little more than words on paper'

- Nasr Hariri, Syrian opposition chief

The umbrella Syrian Negotiations Commission, chaired by Hariri, announced on Tuesday that it will attend new peace talks hosted by the UN in Vienna, but said dates were not yet confirmed.

In a written statement, the SNC’s press office said the opposition would take part in a new round of negotiations, which were "the UN Geneva talks, but taking place in Vienna".   

It couldn’t come at a more urgent time, he stressed, highlighting the renewed government assault on Idlib, and on besieged Eastern Ghouta.

“We have at least 200,000 people displaced from their homes and we have at least 200 people killed in the last two weeks,” he said.

“And we also have at least 200,000 detainees in the regime jails. We will not ignore these voices.”

He would not confirm whether or not the official Syrian opposition will attend upcoming talks in the Russian resort town of Sochi, scheduled for 29-30 January.

Dozens of Syrian rebel factions rejected the Sochi initiative in December, criticising Russia for its attempt to skirt the UN's Geneva-based peace process and for the support it has offered the Assad government in the war. 

Syria's government has said it would attend the Sochi talks. 

“More than 130 civil society groups, most based in Syria, came out in opposition to Sochi process. The voices of these groups cannot be ignored,” Hariri said.

'Bring leverage'

Hariri is in Europe to stress the need to re-focus on the Geneva process, aside from parallel tracks in Sochi and Astana, the Kazakh capital.

“The Syrian opposition is the most united and the most representative it has ever been,” he insisted, but added that “without external pressure from the international community, the Syrian regime will not negotiate in good faith”.

He said it was clear Russia wanted to “empty the Geneva process of its contents,” and “deprioritise transition".

“We feel that they want to draw up a new constitution in the presence of the current regime,” he added. UN Security Resolution 2254 stipulates that a new constitution can only be drawn up after the political transition phase.

Unless a political transition phase is agreed upon, the consequences "should be clear for everyone", he said.

“The regime and its allies will continue to gas, starve and bomb innocent children into submission. Many more will die. And international law will become little more than words on paper.”

He urged the UK and European allies to pressure Assad back to the negotiating table.

“We need our friends, including the UK, to bring leverage to the table. The regime needs to be pressured to negotiate a transition that we all want," he said.

The latest round of UN-backed Syria peace talks concluded in Geneva in mid-December with no notable progress towards ending the war.

One European diplomat said those talks had been a "charade" because of the government's behaviour. 

“Although the regime has presented itself here, that is all that it has done. I would go further: it’s not just a kind of disengagement that they’ve shown, it’s an extraordinary contempt," he said.

Talks were expected to resume on 21 January in Switzerland.

The UN declined to comment on the change of venue or confirm dates for the new round. 

When asked about US plans to help support a 30,000-strong force dominated by the mainly Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, Hariri told Reuters it could lead to Syria's partition.

"What are the benefits of establishing such an army?" he asked. "It will open the door wide for a future struggle in the region. It could open the door to the future partition of Syria."

Assad has responded to the plan by vowing to drive US troops from Syria. Turkey has called the force a terrorist army and vowed to crush it. Iran said on Tuesday creation of the SDF force would "fan the flames of war", echoing the vehement response of Syria, Turkey and Russia.

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