Syria’s opposition agrees to Geneva talks - with reservations

Syrian National Coalition agrees to attend peace talks in Geneva but says President Bashar Al Assad can play no part in a transitional government aimed at ending the civil war.

Free Syrian Army fighters sit on the back of a pick-up truck in the Mouazafeen neighbourhood in Deir Al Zor, eastern Syria. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters
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ISTANBUL // Syria’s western-backed opposition agreed yesterday to attend planned peace talks in Geneva but said President Bashar Al Assad could play no part in a transitional government aimed at ending the civil war.

The Syrian National Coalition also demanded the release of women and children from Syrian jails and an easing of military sieges of rebel-held areas as a precondition for going to Geneva.

No date has yet been agreed for the peace talks, which have been repeatedly delayed by discord between Washington and Moscow and by the coalition’s failure to define its stance until now.

“The coalition agreed to take part in the conference on the basis of a transfer of power to a transitional ruling authority with full powers, including the presidency, military and security,” it said.

There could be no role for Mr Al Assad “or his aides whose hands are stained with Syrian blood” in Syria’s future, it said.

The United States welcomed the coalition’s decision to attend the talks and endorsed its conditions relating to prisoner releases and humanitarian access.

“We will continue to work closely with our international partners, including Russia, to urge the regime to take these steps and move towards convening the Geneva conference,” a state department spokesman said, without commenting on the coalition’s rejection of any role for Mr Al Assad in any interim government.

The US and its western and Arab allies, which have all called on Mr Al Assad to step down, say last year’s Geneva agreement ruled out a future role for the president. Russia, Iran and other supporters of Mr Al Assad challenge that view.

Syrian National Coalition leader Ahmad Jarba had expressed willingness to attend the talks sponsored by the US and Russia but this was the first time the whole group had backed the idea.

“Our position makes it clear that Geneva must result in the removal of Assad, and that Assad and his cohorts with blood on their hands have no role in any transition,” coalition vice-president Farouq Tayfour said.

“Foreign forces must also leave the country,” he said, without specifying which forces. Sunni extremists have flocked to Syria to fight Mr Al Assad’s army, while the president has been supported by Shiite Iran and Hizbollah fighters from Lebanon.

Mr Tayfour said last-minute touches were being made to the coalition declaration, but several delegates said they did not expect significant changes to the position on the Geneva talks.