Long-delayed peace talks between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his rebel opposition are expected to be postponed again, Arab and Western officials told Reuters.
The so-called “Geneva 2” talks, first proposed in May, were most recently scheduled for Nov. 23. Officials said negotiators are now unlikely to meet that goal due to disagreements between the United States and Russia over the representation of the opposition at the peace conference:
Russia sees the [Syrian National Coalition] as just one part of the opposition and has suggested that several delegations, including Damascus-based figures tolerated by the government, could represent President Bashar al-Assad's foes.
That position was echoed by Hassan Abdul Azim, head of the opposition National Coordination Body, who said after meeting international peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Damascus that delegates should attend not under the banner of the coalition but as part of a united "Syrian National Opposition".
A communique at the end of the London meeting also said Geneva would aim to establish a transitional government by which time "Assad and his close associates with blood on their hands will have no role in Syria".
"The Russians are furious at the strong stance taken in London and that the communiqué went a long way towards satisfying the demands of the coalition," a Western official said.
Reuters reports that other events have “thrown [the talks] into further confusion.” Qadri Jamil, Syria's deputy prime minister, was sacked after leaving the country without permission and holding unauthorized meetings with senior U.S. diplomat Robert Ford. Jamil, labeled as a member of the “patriotic opposition” by Assad, unsuccessfully tried to convince the U.S. to include him on the opposition side in the Geneva talks, an official said.
Ahmad Jarba, president of the opposition coalition, has publicly refused to commit to attending Geneva 2 if Assad has any chance of remaining in power. Rebel groups fighting Assad, which do not necessarily take their orders from Jarba, “have rejected any negotiations not centered around Assad's removal and said they would charge anyone who attended them with treason.”
Experts have criticized the Obama administration’s decision to make the peace talks the centerpiece of its policy to end the Syrian civil war, noting that delays have aided Syrian ally Russia. Assad is also unlikely to step down as long as he retains an upper hand on the battlefield against a fragmented opposition, critics say.
The two-year civil war has claimed the lives of more than 115,000, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.