Top envoys pressure Syrian opposition to join peace talks

Top envoys pressure Syrian opposition to join peace talks

Diplomats meet in Paris ahead of summit, but fear surge in internecine fighting among rebels threatens diplomatic efforts

Syrian National Coalition Chief Ahmad al-Jarba, left, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, center, and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, talk prior to a press conference at the foreign ministry in Paris,  Jan. 12, 2014  (photo credit: AP/Michel Euler)
Syrian National Coalition Chief Ahmad al-Jarba, left, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, center, and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, talk prior to a press conference at the foreign ministry in Paris, Jan. 12, 2014 (photo credit: AP/Michel Euler)

PARIS (AP) — Syria’s Western-backed opposition came under steely pressure Sunday to attend peace talks in just over a week, as envoys from 11 countries converged to try and restore the credibility of a rebel coalition sapped by vicious infighting and indecision.

But diplomacy’s limits were starkly apparent in Syria itself, where activists said rebel-on-rebel clashes have killed nearly 700 people in the deadliest bout of infighting since the civil war began.

The bloodshed, pitting al-Qaida linked militants against several Islamist and more moderate rebel brigades, has begun to overshadow the broader war against the government.

The meetings in Paris came just over a week before the scheduled talks in Switzerland, as the Syrian National Coalition nears collapse, its influence eroded by the chronic infighting, international pressure and disagreement over whether to negotiate with Syria’s president, Bashar Assad.

US Secretary of State John Kerry joined 10 other foreign ministers to urge Ahmed al-Jarba to deliver his coalition to the Switzerland talks and finally meet face-to-face with the government it hopes to overthrow. 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.”

The meeting was clearly aimed at bolstering Jarba’s credibility ahead of a vote Friday whether to go to Switzerland, with the 14-point declaration released Sunday states unequivocally that its goal is to allow the Syrian people “to control its own future” and “put an end to the current despotic regime through a genuine political transition.”

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 US.

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 US 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.”

In Damascus, United Nations humanitarian chief Valerie Amos called on the international community to do more to help Syrians suffering from the conflict.

“The world must do more for all the people who are displaced,” Amos said. “Many families are living in abandoned buildings, schools or in makeshift shelters, without enough food, clean water or medicine. We must help them to get through this very cold winter.”

Amos was in Damascus for talks with government officials ahead of a donors’ conference in Kuwait set to open Wednesday for Syrian humanitarian relief, with many of the same players from the Paris meetings urging the Syrian coalition to attend the peace conference.

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.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press

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