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>> The Financial Times


The Financial Times - October 23, 2013

by John Aglionby in London and Abigail Fielding-Smith in Beirut

The increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict in Syria means the proposed Geneva peace talks are more crucial than ever, Britain’s foreign secretary said on Tuesday as he prepared to host discussions with moderate opposition groups and the states that support them.

William Hague said it was crucial to bolster the moderate opposition or else Syrians would only have either President Bashar al-Assad or jihadis to choose between.

“The longer this conflict goes on, the more sectarian it becomes and the more extremists will take hold,” he told the BBC. “That’s why we’re making a renewed effort to get the Geneva process going again.”

Tuesday’s talks in London involve 11 western and Arab states and the Syrian coalition, and aim to demonstrate that the opposition’s international backers are united.

Russia and the US have agreed, under the auspices of the UN, to try to restart the so-called Geneva II process, peace talks to end the two-and-a-half year conflict that has left more than 100,000 people dead.

The timetable for the conference, initially proposed for June, has slipped as neither of the warring sides nor their international backers have found common ground. Moscow, Washington and the UN are hoping to hold the meeting next month but it is not clear if it will happen.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League Syria envoy, said on Sunday that the conference could not take place without the attendance of a “convincing opposition”.

It is a moot point whether the Syrian National Coalition, the main umbrella group for the regime’s political opponents, is “convincing”, but it is the partner that western powers have in mind.

The coalition will decide whether to go to Geneva on November 1. The largest faction has already rejected the Geneva process, and one member rated the likelihood of the body voting in favour as roughly 25 per cent.

The US cannot automatically count on Saudi Arabia, which exerts significant influence over the coalition’s leadership, to help. Riyadh is said to be frustrated with the US for its failure to take a tougher line against Damascus, and recently gave up its UN Security Council seat in protest at what it said were the international community’s “double standards” on Syria.

“If the coalition goes it will rupture – there will be a split,” said US-based Syrian dissident and academic Amr al-Azm. “The best you can expect is that some opposition members will show up.”

Mr Hague said the continuing military stalemate exacerbated the need for a negotiated solution. “Neither side is winning this conflict militarily,” he said. “Neither is able to conquer the other. Syrians have to make the compromises necessary to make a peace process work.”

Mr Assad has made military gains in the past two months, but John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said in Paris en route to London that this did not guarantee Mr Assad continuing in office.

“I don’t know anybody who believes that the opposition will ever consent to Bashar al-Assad being part of that government,’’ Mr Kerry said.

Extremist groups, including the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, have hurt the credibility of the fractured opposition to Mr Assad and driven a wedge between the different factions.

Mr Assad on Monday said the circumstances were not yet appropriate for a peace conference to take place.

“Who are the groups that will participate? What is their relation with the Syrian people?” he said during an interview with Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen TV. “Do they represent the Syrian people or they represent the country that made them?’’

Western nations have praised Mr Assad for his co-operation in the past month with UN inspectors disarming and destroying his chemical weapons, a process due to last until the middle of next year.

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