Top envoys insist Syria peace talks must proceed

By Lori Hinnant

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Jan. 12 2014 10:23 a.m. MST

Syrian National Coalition Chief Ahmad al-Jarba, speaks during a press conference at the foreign ministry in Paris, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014. The head of Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group says its international supporters agree that Bashar Assad has no future as the country’s leader. The statement Sunday from Ahmad al-Jarba comes as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and top envoys from 10 other countries raised the pressure for peace talks that would bring his Syrian National Coalition face-to-face with the government the rebels are trying to overthrow.

Michel Euler, Associated Press

PARIS — Allies of the main Western-backed Syrian opposition group ramped up pressure Sunday for peace talks that would finally bring it face-to-face with the Syrian government it wants to overthrow.

The two-day series of meetings in Paris came a week before the scheduled talks in Switzerland, as the Syrian National Coalition nears collapse, its influence sapped by chronic infighting, international pressure and disagreement over whether to negotiate with Syria's president, Bashar Assad.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry joined 10 other foreign ministers to urge Ahmed al-Jarba to deliver his coalition to the Switzerland talks. The Syrian put the best face on the group's precarious position.

"We have made clear the reality of the situation on the ground," he said, flanked by the diplomats. "We have addressed issues, preoccupations and worries that we know exist."

Within Syria, the moderate rebels say the coalition-in-exile is little help as they find themselves battling on two fronts — against al-Qaida linked militants on one side and Assad's forces on another. One brigade after another has broken with the group, calling it out of touch with the harsh reality of a war that activists say has killed more than 130,000 people.

Assad himself has said there will be no discussion of giving up power, throwing the entire premise of the peace talks into doubt. On the other side, the rebel groups with the most men, arms and territory have already rejected any idea of an armistice. Sunday's declaration released by the 11 envoys included an explicit request for the Syrian National Coalition to accept the invitation to the peace talks.

"As the weaker party, they could agree to things that are not in our interests. And most of them are exiles, or have been outside the country for such a long time now that they don't even feel the suffering of their people," said Abu al-Hassan Marea, an activist from Syria's northern city of Aleppo, which has seen near-daily combat for month as rebels and the government fight for control. "If they agree to things that we don't approve of, it will be betrayal of the revolution."

The indecision and weakness of the Syrian coalition also has tested the patience of its backers, including the U.S.

Officials in France, which has been among the coalition's strongest backers, say they understand its predicament and hope the outcome of the Paris meetings will lay the groundwork for the peace talks to proceed.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the talks were the only hope for a political solution in Syria, "the only prospect that can lead to a true solution."

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier made clear that the series of meetings, which include talks with the Russian leadership, would include pressure for the peace conference.

"We want to do some persuading here and clear away the last obstacles that might exist — at least try to do that," Steinmeier said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the coalition had, in fact, agreed last fall to attend the meeting, but since then has reconsidered as the result of renewed violence and brutality he blamed on the regime.

"We are working very hard, and he is working very hard to convince the Syrian National Coalition — all of the members and also on the ground —to participate," Davutoglu said in a brief interview at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Paris, where Kerry was meeting with some of the envoys.

Davutoglu said the envoys promised to "do everything possible to stop these massacres and crimes against humanity."

But Marea, the Aleppo activist, predicted that if the peace talks happen "it will be a disaster" for those suffering in Syria's civil war.

"The regime must be called to account for its crimes, and the government to replace it should be one that all the people want," he said.

He did not say how that could happen.

Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Beirut, Lebanon, and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

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