Outlook dim as Syria diplomacy gathers force

AMMAN/LONDON Mon May 20, 2013 12:25am BST

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (R) sits during an interview with journalists from Argentina in Damascus in this handout photograph distributed by Syria's national news agency SANA on May 18, 2013. SANA/Handout via Reuters

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (R) sits during an interview with journalists from Argentina in Damascus in this handout photograph distributed by Syria's national news agency SANA on May 18, 2013. SANA/Handout via Reuters

AMMAN/LONDON (Reuters) - The world's diplomats will make a major new push in the coming days for negotiations to end Syria's civil war, but their chances of achieving a peace deal look as remote as ever.

President Bashar al-Assad poured scorn on new plans for peace talks announced unexpectedly by the United States and Russia two weeks ago and planned for Geneva in early June.

Assad's remarks were the latest indication that the warring parties are cold to the superpowers' invitation, although opposition figures suggest that they are likely to agree to attend the talks anyway to isolate Assad.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to explain the plans for talks at a meeting in Jordan on Wednesday of the "Friends of Syria" club of countries seeking Assad's downfall, many of which are sceptical of the peace initiative.

Syria's opposition will meet on Thursday in Istanbul to announce its stance, and the Arab League's Syria committee will also meet on Thursday in Cairo at the request of leading Assad foe Qatar, possibly to endorse the opposition's decision.

On Wednesday, Britain and possibly France will try to persuade a European Union summit to allow the bloc's 27 member states to arm Syria's rebels.

The proposed peace conference would be the first attempt to form an international consensus on Syria in nearly a year, since another Geneva meeting ended with support for a "transitional government" but no agreement on what that means.

A war that has killed more than 80,000 people and driven millions from their homes is only growing worse. Reports of atrocities on both sides, the rise of an al Qaeda faction among Assad's foes, allegations that chemical arms have been used and air strikes by Israel have contributed to pressure on diplomats to achieve something at last.

Despite agreeing to call the conference, Washington and Moscow remain divided. The United States criticised Russia over the weekend for providing missiles to Assad.

Russia insists Assad's main regional backer, Iran, must attend. France said it would oppose the conference unless Tehran was kept away.

Among the warring parties themselves, the Syrian opposition has yet to budge on its refusal to negotiate unless Assad is excluded from power, although it will be under pressure from Washington not to snub the invitation to talks.

Assad, who says the fighters against him are terrorists and agents of foreign powers, dismissed the prospect of a peace settlement in an interview with Argentinean newspaper Clarin.

"They think a political conference will halt terrorists in the country. That is unrealistic," he said. "There is confusion in the world between a political solution and terrorism."

He added: "No dialogue with terrorists."

FRIENDS

Wednesday's "Friends of Syria" meeting will give Kerry a chance to explain plans for the peace conference to the alliance of Arab and Western countries that are pushing for Assad's downfall, many of which are suspicious of Washington's stance.

"Their position will largely be determined on the basis of the presentation by Kerry on what happened in the negotiations with the Russian side," said Fahed Khaitan, a leading Jordanian political commentator.

"Some countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar want assurances from the Americans that the U.S.-Russian deal will not be at the expense of the Syrian opposition or the revolution and that it will not end up helping the Syrian regime or lengthen Assad's stay in power," Khaitan said.

Abdelrahman Rashed, head of al-Arabiya Television, wrote in the Saudi-owned al-Sharq al-Awsat daily that Kerry had "shocked many in the Arab region by supporting the Russian project".

"Public opinion sees a dangerous change in the position of the U.S. government.... Accepting the Russian project is a big error, because it gives hope to a besieged regime, instead of doubling pressure on it."

The opposition says it has yet to decide whether to attend the peace conference. George Sabra, the Syrian National Coalition's acting chief, said: "So far those who called for the conference do not have a clear idea about it. If we don't have a clear idea we cannot form a decision whether to take part.

But most indications are that the opposition will not snub the talks for fear of handing a propaganda victory to Assad.

A senior Syrian opposition leader involved in the National Coalition's internal debate said: "A consensus is emerging among the coalition's leadership that it would be a major political mistake not to go and to let Assad take advantage."

The Arab League meeting on Thursday will allow powerful countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which provide arms and funding for the Syrian rebels, to endorse any decision the opposition announces.

EU DEBATE

Wednesday's "Friends of Syria" meeting will also overlap with the EU debate over whether to amend a two-year-old weapons embargo to allow European countries to arm some rebels.

An entire package of European sanctions against Syria expires on June 1. EU diplomats say Britain has threatened to block the extension of other measures such as an oil embargo unless the ban on arming rebels is lifted.

Any EU action must be unanimous. The British position is opposed by Austria, which has peacekeepers deployed in the Golan Heights and fears for their safety if European countries are allowed to arm the rebels and no longer seen as neutral.

Britain's argument is that lifting the ban on arms sales would strengthen the moderate opposition in Syria. Britain is also confident that arms can be prevented from flowing to the Islamist-militant factions among the rebels.

Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to agree a joint Franco-British position with President Francois Hollande in Paris on Tuesday, the eve of the summit.

Some diplomats say the French are warier than the British about lifting the arms ban on the rebels, for fear that it could prompt Russia to send more arms to Assad. Paris may want details to be left until after the peace conference so that the prospect of lifting the embargo can be used as leverage over Assad.

"The French are really not pushing, they've backed off," one EU official said.

(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman, Justyna Pawlak, Adrian Croft and Luke Baker in Brussels and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Peter Graff; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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