Syria will join peace talks, but wants to know what 'terrorists' will be there

The Syrian government declared Saturday it is ready to attend peace talks scheduled in Geneva later this month, but said it would insist on receiving the names of opposition figures who will be part of the negotiations.

Walid Moallem, Syria’s foreign minister, told a United Nations envoy during a meeting in Damascus that the government needs to know in advance whether “terrorist groups” will be participating in the meetings, according to the Syrian news agency SANA.

The Geneva negotiations are the first step in a road map laid out last year by the international community to end the Syrian civil war. The nearly five-year conflict has killed an estimated 250,000 people and created a massive refugee crisis in the region as well as in Europe.

The road map, which was adopted unanimously by the U.N. Security Council in December, calls for a nationwide ceasefire between the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the armed rebels pitted against him.

It is to culminate in “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance,” constitutional reform and U.N.-supervised elections within 18 months. The fate of Assad remains unclear.

But the road map also seeks to determine which of the many opposition parties will participate in the conference, while excluding those deemed as terrorist organizations — a difficult task in light of the Syrian government’s dismissal of the opposition as “terrorists” and “mercenaries,” as well as the sectarian nature of many rebel factions on the ground.

It also outlines several confidence-building measures, including the cessation of the indiscriminate use of shelling and aerial bombardment against civilians, safe and voluntary refugee transfer, and unfettered access for humanitarian agencies to besieged areas of Syria.

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Previous attempts at jump-starting peace talks have failed because of what was viewed as the government's intransigence regarding rebel participation.

The government, according to regional analyst Mouin Rabbani, speaking in a phone interview from the Jordanian capital Amman, has given conditions “that were very extremely difficult for the U.N. to meet.”

“From the government’s point of view, they’re not keen on negotiations anyway,” Rabbani said.

The most effective rebel groups, mostly hard-line Islamist groups, have advocated an Islamist system of governance in Syria and have displayed little interest in negotiations unless Assad’s departure is guaranteed.

The talks face another stumbling block in soaring tensions between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of which have been instrumental in exacerbating the sectarian element of the conflict.

Iran’s Shiite leadership has backed Assad, a member of the Alawite sect that is related to Shia Islam.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has funneled money and materiel to the Sunni-dominated insurgency arrayed against Assad.

Last week, Saudi Arabia executed an influential Shiite cleric, enraging Iran and leading to a cutoff of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir, however, has insisted that the row will not affect the Syrian peace talks.

Iran has similarly called for calm, while diplomatic efforts from Iraq and Oman continue to encourage a reconciliation between the two countries.

U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, after his meeting with the Syrian foreign minister in Damascus, said through a spokesman’s statement that the meeting was “useful” and that he is “looking forward to the active participation of relevant parties in the Geneva talks.”

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Opposition leaders have expressed doubts that the negotiations will be held this month.

“I don’t at all see that the proposed date is a realistic one, especially since on the ground there were no confidence-building measures,” opposition member George Sabra said in a phone interview Saturday.

He cited the situation in Madaya, a town with an estimated population of 40,000 located 25 miles northwest of Damascus that has been besieged by pro-government forces since July. Aid organizations said at least 23 people have died in the town as a result of starvation. Others put the death toll at much higher.

“The issue of Madaya has become a key point. The Syrian cannot go to negotiations while Syrians are dying of hunger and cold,” Sabra said.

“If the U.N. cannot deliver a food basket to Madaya, then how can we believe that the U.N. will lead a political solution?” he said.

On Thursday, the Syrian government said it would allow aid to enter Madaya in the coming week. Pawel Krzysiek, spokesman for the International Community of the Red Cross in Damascus, said in a tweet Saturday that the operation would not start before Monday.

In recent days, Madaya has become a media battleground for the warring parties in Syria. Opposition activists have uploaded horrific pictures and videos depicting cadaverous children subsisting on water and spices. The furor also has affected the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, an ally of the Assad government, which is accused of perpetrating what Madaya residents have described as a nightmare.

But Syrian pro-government media and Hezbollah supporters say much of the images are fake and part of an orchestrated plan to turn what is a “military situation into a fabricated humanitarian crisis,” according to Amin Hateet, a political analyst who was designated to discuss the matter by Hezbollah's media office in Beirut.

Hateet also accused rebel fighters bunkered inside Madaya of holding civilians hostage, barring their exit from the town.

“There is exaggeration in this matter, so as to blackmail and slander Hezbollah,” he said.

Bulos is a special correspondent.

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