BEIRUT // Syria’s main opposition group has said it will attend peace talks starting on Monday but accused the government of Bashar Al Assad of preparing to escalate the war.
The UN-brokered talks, which coincide with the fifth anniversary of the conflict, will take place in Geneva two weeks after the start of a ceasefire agreement that has reduced violence although not halted the fighting.
The High Negotiations Committee said it would attend as part of its “commitment to international efforts to stop the spilling of Syrian blood and find a political solution”.
But its statement on Friday played down any chance of reaching agreement with the Syrian government to end the war that has killed more than 250,000 people and led to a refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe.
Russia said it expected its ally Syria to attend, although Damascus has yet to publicly confirm it will do so. The Syrian foreign minister is expected to announce his government’s position on the talks on Saturday.
Meanwhile, the US secretary of state John Kerry arrived in Saudi Arabia on Friday for discussions with Saudi leaders. After talks with King Salman, Mr Kerry went into a meeting with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef, defence minister Mohammed bin Salman and foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir, saying “I think we have to talk about Syria” before journalists were asked to leave the venue. Both Washington and Saudi Arabia support groups in the Syrian opposition.
Peace talks convened two years ago collapsed because the sides were unable to agree an agenda: Damascus wanted a focus on fighting terrorism, the term it uses for the rebellion, while the opposition wanted to discuss a transitional government.
The latest talks are intended to focus on future political arrangements in Syria, a new constitution and elections, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said.
The opposition HNC said it wanted the talks to concentrate on the establishment of an interim governing body with full executive powers.
HNC coordinator Riad Hijab said the group was “concerned with representing the just cause of the Syrian people ... and investing in all available chances to alleviate the Syrian people’s suffering”.
“We know that they [the government] are committing crimes, and that they are preparing an air and ground escalation in the coming period,” he said, without elaborating.
A prominent Syrian dissident, Haytham Manna, said he would stay away from the talks, which he regarded as a “failing project”.
Mr Manna, whose Syrian Democratic Council includes Kurdish members, boycotted the last round of talks because the Kurds were not invited.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said however that Mr de Mistura should this time include representatives of Kurdish groups, which have been fighting in Syria against the extremist group ISIL.
The Kurds have not been invited so far because regional power Turkey does not want them in Geneva and says they are terrorists. Russia says they are a legitimate part of a future Syria, so they must be at the table.
There has been speculation that they will be included in the coming round. Mr de Mistura says he has not expanded the list of invitees, but the talks’ format gives him flexibility to consult whomever he wants.
A plan agreed by world powers last year called for six months of negotiations followed by a transitional government, a new constitution and elections within 18 months.
However, Mr Al Assad’s regime announced last month that it would hold parliamentary elections on April 13 instead, drawing criticism.
On Friday, Mr de Mistura said first day of negotiations would start the countdown to both presidential and parliamentary elections in Syria under UN observation.
“New elections ... should be held 18 months from the start of talks, that is from March 14,” he told Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency.
That would mean elections around mid-September 2017.
The current “cessation of hostilities” agreement, which came into force on February 27, does not include the two main extremist groups, ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, and the areas they control. However, there have been regular reports of violations in others areas.
Government air strikes killed at least five civilians and wounded 10 others in the rebel-held Salhin neighbourhood of Aleppo city on Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, describing it as “the most serious violation in the city since the truce came into effect”.
* Reuters and Agence France-Presse