Syria Opposition Weighs Russian Peace Talks Invite

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Syria's main opposition group signalled it would announce Friday whether it will join next week's "peace congress" in Russia, as the UN held separate talks on finding a way out of conflict in the country.

Regime officials and the main opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission (SNC) were both in Vienna for two days of talks that began Thursday, with Western powers worrying that Moscow is seeking to undermine the UN-backed talks with its own diplomatic push. 

As with eight rounds of previous UN talks in Geneva, there was no sign that the opposition and regime would even sit down at the same table, with the warring sides instead meeting separately with United Nations special envoy Staffan de Mistura. 

SNC spokesman Yahya al-Aridi, arriving for the talks at the UN's offices in the Austrian capital, said the opposition's goal was "to bring Syria back to life, safe for our people to come home".

As for whether the main opposition will attend Tuesday's closely-watched talks in Sochi -- a prospect dozens of rebel factions have already rejected -- he suggested an announcement would come later Friday.

"We will tell you today, hopefully," he said.

Russia, which has helped turn the Syrian war in the favour of its ally President Bashar al-Assad, has invited 1,600 people to the Black Sea resort to begin hammering out a new constitution for post-war Syria.

The meeting is also backed by Iran and Turkey, two key players in the complex and devastating seven-year-old conflict, but viewed with unease by the opposition and Western countries.

They fear it will sideline the UN track and carve out a settlement in favour of Assad.

Haid Haid, a consulting research fellow at Chatham House think-tank, stopped short of saying Russia was actively trying to sabotage the UN peace process.

But he said that Moscow has huge interests in making sure that any breakthrough comes at Sochi instead.

"They want to present themselves as peace brokers, not only in Syria but in the Middle East in general, a role traditionally carried out by the Americans," Haid told AFP.

"For the Russians to take this role, they have to do what the Americans were not able to do" -- find a solution in Syria, he said.

- Russian firepower -Russia's military involvement began in September 2015 and has helped Assad's forces reduce the rebels to small pockets of resistance such as the Idlib province and Eastern Ghouta.

The Islamic State group's formerly vast "caliphate" covering swathes of Syria as well as Iraq has meanwhile been all but swept away.

A key factor in IS's demise has been Kurdish forces backed by the West -- but this has made Turkey, rocked by a three-decade insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in its south, uneasy that the Kurds will be emboldened to try and carve out their own independent state.

The Turkish military on Saturday launched a cross-border operation against Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia in northern Syria, to the great alarm of its NATO allies who have backed the fighters in their battle against IS.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday threatened to expand Turkey's offensive against the Afrin region in Syria to other cities.

"We will continue our fight until there is no terrorist on our border leading to Iraq," Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.

Previous UN-backed attempts have hit a roadblock over the question of Assad's future, with the regime refusing to meet the opposition face-to-face until it drops demands that he steps down.

Putting this thorny issue to one side for now, de Mistura has tried to talk to the two sides about drawing up a new constitution -- just like the Russians aim to do in Sochi next week.

Comments 2
Thumb chrisrushlau 26 January 2018, 18:37

The group said that their nice new suits and neckties had not arrived yet and wanted to know when they would arrive so more formal photographs could be taken.

Thumb chrisrushlau 26 January 2018, 18:38

An apparent woman on the council insisted she would be perfectly happy to wear a man's suit and necktie as long as it was a nice new one.