PARIS (Reuters) - The United States has softened its stance on Syria including the future of President Bashar al-Assad to accommodate Russia, opposition coordinator Riad Hijab said, warning the opposition would face a hard choice on whether to attend peace talks this month.
Hijab, who was chosen in December as coordinator of the opposition negotiating body to lead future Syria talks, said the opposition still had disagreements with the Syrian government and the United Nations over the talks’ agenda.
“Sadly, there is very clear backtracking, especially from the United States, with regard to the agenda of the negotiations,” Hijab said on Tuesday. “They want the creation of a government whereby the regime would leave us, the opposition, a few ministries.”
He said this U.S. backtracking had enabled the December U.N. resolution, which had a great deal of “holes and ambiguities”.
The U.N. Security Council resolution adopted on Dec. 18 set out a two-year road map for peace talks, but failed to address the issue of Assad’s future.
“The Russians and Americans did not cite Assad (during the negotiations) and did not talk about his departure and that is clear backtracking,” he said. “When (President Barack) Obama said he (Assad) had no legitimacy, Kerry was making concessions.”
It also called for an end to the bombing of civilians and on the parties to allow aid workers unhindered access throughout Syria, particularly in besieged and hard-to-reach areas.
He took specific aim at the U.S. administration and President Obama over his policies, including proposals to create a no-fly zone to protect Syrians and his handling of Assad’s chemical arsenal.
“Obama didn’t want (a no-fly zone) .. (and) with the red lines on chemical weapons, he took out the weapons, but not those who used them. I don’t think history will forgive Obama.”
The peace talks are scheduled to be held under U.N. auspices in Geneva on Jan. 25.
However, with the continued bombing of civilians, Syrian towns being besieged with some citizens starving to death, and differences on the agenda, the prospects of holding the talks to end the five-year-old war appear complicated.
“The choice is extremely difficult,” Hijab said when asked if the opposition would attend the talks. “If we don’t go to the negotiations they will say we don’t respect the U.N. resolutions, but our people are being bombed and starved.
“If the negotiations are not well prepared they will fail,” he said, warning that failure would mean more refugees heading to Europe and more moderates turning to extremism.
“If we go and they fail, it would be catastrophe for Syrian society and it would be the world that pays the price.”
He said there were still disagreements with the United Nations and the Syrian government over the agenda of the talks, primarily the transitional governing body.
A senior Western diplomat also said the differences among regional and international actors as well as rivalries among opposition groups was playing into Syrian government hands.
“In December 2013 (former negotiator) Lakhdar Brahimi said he was obliged to show something was being done when all sides were not ready for talks. I fear that two years later we will reach the same conclusion. I regret it, but for me I have already seen this happen,” the diplomat said.
Reporting By John Irish and Marine Pennetier; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Ralph Boulton