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Diplomats prep for Syria peace talks scheduled in Geneva next week

Diplomats are expressing confidence that Syrian peace talks scheduled to begin in Geneva next week will proceed, though the start could be delayed amid a heated dispute about who will represent the fractured Syrian opposition.

The United Nations-sponsored negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition delegates are slated to begin Monday. But various officials have signaled that the process may be pushed back, albeit only for a short period.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Thursday in Davos, Switzerland, that the talks could be delayed by "a day or two" while invitations went out but that there would not be a "fundamental delay."

He met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Zurich on Wednesday and was going to talk to Saudi officials this weekend, all aimed at finding agreement on what groups should be allowed at the negotiating table.

The U.S. and Russian governments — on opposite sides of Syria’s almost five-year conflict — both strongly support the Geneva initiative.

“We have no intention to postpone the talks from January to February,”  Lavrov said in Zurich. 

The Obama administration policy in Syria has evolved considerably since January 2014, when a round of Syrian peace negotiations took place in Switzerland.

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During those talks, U.S. officials maintained that Syrian President Bashar Assad must relinquish power as part of any peace process. The 2014 talks ended in acrimony.

This time around, Washington has softened its “Assad must go” stance, saying the Syrian leader could remain for an unspecified transition period, though he should eventually step down. In December, Kerry declared in Moscow that the United States and its allies “are not seeking so-called regime change” in Syria.

For the last 18 months, the chief focus of the administration’s Syria policy has shifted from ousting Assad to destroying the extremist group Islamic State. The Al Qaeda offshoot has overrun vast stretches of territory in Syria and neighboring Iraq, while claiming responsibility for terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut and for downing a Russian airliner.

Washington is also under pressure from allies in Europe to take measures to end Syria’s destabilizing conflict, which has left more than 200,000 dead and caused multitudes of Syrians to flee to Europe. The continent’s greatest refugee crisis since World War II has caused economic, social and political strains in much of Europe.

A major obstacle for United Nations officials organizing the upcoming Geneva talks is deciding who will represent the fragmented Syrian opposition, which include radical Islamist fighters and peaceful and secular opponents of Assad’s government.

There is agreement that two of the major armed opposition factions — Islamic State and Al Nusra Front, the official Al Qaeda franchise in Syria — will be excluded from the talks.

But the participation of other radical Islamist groups, such as Ahrar al Sham, cofounded by an Al Qaeda operative, has not been ruled out. Militant Sunni Islamist factions dominate the armed opposition on the ground in Syria.

The dispute about who will represent the opposition in Geneva is playing out against a backdrop of foreign powers’ deep involvement in the complex, multi-sided Syrian conflict.

Russia and Iran have been staunch supporters of Assad’s government. A Russian aerial bombing campaign launched in September has helped pro-government forces turn the tide of battle in their favor across several fronts. Iranian advisors and Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim  militias have bolstered the severely overstretched Syrian military.

Many in Washington hoped Iran might prove more cooperative in Syria talks as a byproduct of its compliance with a historic nuclear-arms control deal that was fulfilled Saturday. The deal led to the removal of key sanctions that have hurt the Islamic Republic’s economy and signaled a small thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations.

But several analysts said Iran may see the talks as a way to lock in the government ahead of any cease-fire that would then in effect force much of Assad’s opposition to stop fighting.

“There’s no reason Iran’s behavior on Syria would change now,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former government intelligence analyst who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. In fact, he said, Iran, depending on its internal struggle between moderates and hard-liners after the nuclear deal, may strike an even more recalcitrant position.

“They may need to compensate for the deal” among domestic opponents, Pollack said. “Whenever a sop is given to one side, they have to give a sop to the other … and prove that regional policy goes full steam ahead.”

The United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other allied nations have backed various rebel factions fighting in Syria with weapons, cash and training.

Rhetoric in advance of the Geneva talks has seen Russia and Saudi Arabia at odds on whom should be invited to represent the opposition.

On Wednesday, A Saudi-backed opposition umbrella group named as its chief negotiator for the talks Mohammed Alloush, political chief of a powerful rebel faction known as Army of Islam, which holds sway in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. Moscow, however, views both the Army of Islam and Ahrar al Sham as terrorist organizations.

The Saudi-backed opposition coalition also warned that it would pull out of the talks if the U.N. accepts a Russian effort to widen the scope of the opposition delegation. Among other suggestions, Moscow seeks participation by the political opposition in Syria, even if it is tolerated by Assad’s government.

Another question is whether Syrian Kurdish groups that have seized territory in northern Syria will be represented at the talks.

Turkey vociferously objects to inviting the main Syrian Kurdish armed faction, viewing the group as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, which has waged a three-decade war against the Ankara government. But the Syrian Kurds have worked in concert with the U.S. aerial campaign in Syria and have been among the most effective forces against Islamic State.

Despite the many hurdles, diplomats appear confident that the talks will come off.

Staffan de Mistura, the U.N.’s special envoy for Syria, downplayed the disagreements as not unusual in the run-up to such a session.

“When there is a serious potential for a real negotiation, you will see everybody trying, first verbally, rhetorically, secondly militarily to take a better position,” he told CNN on Wednesday. “We should look at it with concern but not be impressed.... Because the Syrian people and basically everybody realizes that this [war] cannot go on.”

Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington and special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Beirut contributed to this report.

Twitter: @mcdneville

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