RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia, a foe of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said on Tuesday no one should dictate to the Syrian opposition who represents them at peace talks, as a proposed Jan. 25 meeting looked set to be delayed by differences over who will attend.
The planned Geneva talks are part of a peace process endorsed by the U.N. Security Council last month in a rare display of international agreement on Syria, where a five-year-old civil war has killed at least 250,000 people.
The world body said on Monday it would not issue invitations to the talks between Syria’s government and opposition until major powers pushing the peace process reached agreement on which rebel representatives should attend.
“The Syrian opposition is the party which decides who represents it in the talks, and the higher committee that emerged from the Riyadh conference is the concerned party and they are the ones who decide who represents them in the talks,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in Riyadh.
“No other party is allowed to impose on the Syrian opposition who represents them in the talks with Bashar al-Assad,” he added, at a joint news conference with visiting French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said on Monday that the United Nations will proceed with issuing invitations “when the countries spearheading the ISSG (International Syria Support Group) process come to an understanding on who among the opposition should be invited”.
The countries driving the diplomatic initiative on Syria include the United States, Russia and other European and Middle Eastern powers, among them rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran.
U.N. diplomats say it looks increasingly likely that the U.N.-brokered talks between Syria’s government and opposition will be delayed.
The opposition, at a meeting in Riyadh last month, set up a 34-member body to oversee the talks.
The peace process calls for negotiations aimed at setting up a transitional government and eventual elections.
Western-backed Syrian opposition groups have said they want government sieges to end before talks can start. The United Nations says government and opposition sieges have put civilians at risk of starvation.
Reporting by Katie Paul in Riyadh and Mostafa Hashem in Cairo; writing by Sami Aboudi; editing by William Maclean and Andrew Roche