BEIRUT (AP) — A key international conference aimed at ending Syria’s civil war will be held in Geneva in late November, according to an announcement by the Arab League chief on Sunday that followed weeks of diplomacy to finalize the meeting.
Even as the announcement was made, violence continued in Syria. A suicide bomber driving an explosives-laden truck detonated his load at a government checkpoint on the edge of the central city of Hama, killing at least 30 people, according to both activists and the state media.
League chief Nabil Elaraby made the announcement at a news conference at the pan-Arab organization’s headquarters in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, after talks with the Arab League-UN envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi.
The proposed conference on November. 23 and 24, will attempt to get Syria’s rival sides to agree on a transitional government in that country based on a plan adopted in Geneva in June 2012.
Syria’s conflict, now into its third year, has left over 100,000 dead. It has devastated the economy and the country’s delicate social fabric. It has caused 5 million Syrians to flee their homes to other places within the country, and driven another 2 million abroad.
A seasoned Algerian diplomat and an international troubleshooter, Brahimi said he planned to visit Qatar and Turkey on Monday as part of his preparations for the Geneva conference.
Elaraby said “many difficulties” face the proposed Geneva conference. He did not elaborate.
Syria’s fractured and squabbling opposition movement immediately criticized the plan, saying they were not consulted. They said they could not accept any negotiations that allowed for the Syrian President Bashar Assad to remain as head of state in any transitional period.
The talks have been put off repeatedly in the past, in part because of fundamental disagreements over Assad’s fate.
The Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, the main alliance of political opposition groups, has said in the past that it will only negotiate if it is agreed from the start that Assad will leave power at the end of a transition period. Many rebel fighters inside Syria flatly reject negotiating with Assad’s regime.
The regime has rejected such a demand, saying Assad will stay at least until the end of his term in mid-2014, and he will decide then whether to seek re-election. The regime has said it refuses to negotiate with the armed opposition.
“This is a conspiracy against the Syrian people,” said Bassam al-Dada, an official with the rebel Free Syrian Army. “The most important request of the Syrian people — the distancing of Bashar (Assad) from the transitional period — was ignored,” he said.
He said the Western-backed SNC would meet November 1 to discuss the matter further.
Many rebels think the government will exploit peace talks, but has no intention of making concessions.
Islam Alloush, a spokesman for one rebel group, Liwaa al-Islam, said that holding a conference that involved the Syrian regime could make the conflict worse, by emboldening government forces to act more harshly on the ground.
“This is very, very sensitive. We have to be extremely careful,” Alloush said. “It could produce more negative results,” he said.
Meanwhile, Syrian rebels drove a truck laden with over a ton of explosives into the government post at the eastern entrance of Hama, the state news agency SANA said. A nearby truck carrying gasoline cylinders was caught up in the explosion, prompting a series of other blasts. Footage aired on Syrian television showed rubble, fires, and bodies on the ground.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, or al-Nusra Front, had carried out the attack. Both SANA and the Observatory said at least 30 had died.
It was the second deadly assault on a checkpoint in two days. On Saturday, rebels led by al-Nusra fighters set off a car bomb while assaulting a checkpoint near Damascus, killing 16 soldiers.
The high-profile role played by al-Nusra and other al-Qaida-linked militants, who stage some of the most aggressive attacks, is yet another obstacle standing in the way of a negotiated settlement.
Also Sunday, activists said they were still searching for news of imprisoned Syrian women who were meant to be freed as part of an ambitious three-way hostage release deal that was implemented Saturday.
A pro-government Syrian newspaper, al-Watan, said Sunday 128 women were released, citing “media sources.”
But Syrian activists contacted throughout the country said they had not been able to confirm if any women were freed.
Syrian officials would not comment, and official state media did not mention the issue.
The hostage deal released nine Lebanese pilgrims abducted in Syria and two Turkish pilots held hostage in Lebanon. They returned home Saturday night.
The deal, mediated by Qatar and Palestinian officials, also was meant to include freeing dozens of women held in Syrian government jails to satisfy the rebels who abducted the pilgrims a year and a half ago. The Turkish pilots were kidnapped in August by gunmen in Lebanon to pressure Turkey to help release the Lebanese pilgrims. Turkey is believed to have some clout with some brigades of Syrian rebels.
Their abductions showed how the chaos from the Syrian civil war, now in its third year, has spilled across the greater Middle East.
The hostage deal is one of the more ambitious negotiated settlements to come out of Syria’s civil war, where the warring sides remain largely opposed to any bartered peace. It suggests that the parties — and their regional backers — may be more prepared to deal with each other than at any other previous time in the conflict.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.