BEIRUT Leaders of Syria's political and armed opposition said on Wednesday they were skeptical of a plan by the United States and Russia to bring together the warring sides in their country's two-year conflict for a peace conference.
A day after the announcement by Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow of plans for a peace conference, opposition figures said they were still reluctant to talk with President Bashar al-Assad's government.
They worry that a peace conference would be cover for a diplomatic initiative to press them to accept Assad or his inner circle as leaders in a future transitional government.
"Before making any decisions we need to know what Assad's role would be. That point has been left vague, we believe intentionally so, in order to try to drag the opposition into talks before a decision on that is made," said Samir Nashar, a member of the opposition's umbrella National Coalition body.
"No official position has been decided but I believe the opposition would find it impossible to hold talks over a government that still had Assad at its head," he told Reuters by telephone from Istanbul.
Syria's conflict is now in its third year and has killed more than 70,000 people. The rebellion that began as a protest movement against four decades of Assad family rule descended into civil war after a security force crackdown.
In the past, the United States has backed opposition demands that Assad be excluded from any future government, while Russia has said this must be for Syrians to decide in talks, a formula the opposition believes could be used to keep Assad in power.
Opposition members said they were concerned by comments from Kerry in Moscow that the decision on who takes part in a transitional government should be left to Syrians, fearing Washington will drop its insistence that Assad be removed.
"Syrians are worried that the United States is advancing its own interests with Russia using the blood and suffering of the Syrian people," said National Coalition member Ahmed Ramadan, speaking by telephone.
"We are in touch with the U.S. side and need to be assured that there is no change in its position on Assad."
Russia supplies Assad's government with arms and has used its veto, along with China, to prevent U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for Assad to be removed.
Lavrov hinted on Tuesday that Moscow was not committed to Assad, saying Russia was not concerned with the fate of particular individuals, although Russia has made such comments in the past without changing its position.
Many rebels have firmly stated they are unwilling to negotiate with anyone from the Syrian regime.
"Unfortunately I don't think there is a political solution left for Syria. I think that is clear by now," said Colonel Qassim Saadedine, a spokesman for the rebel Supreme Military Council.
"We will not sit with the regime for dialogue. And frankly, I don't think Assad's decisions are really in Russia's hands. Right now he is only looking toward Iran," referring to Assad's main backer within the region.
Lavrov said the U.S. and Russia aimed to hold talks along the lines of a Geneva agreement negotiated by then U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan in June 2012 that called for an end to violence and the establishment of a transitional government.
Since then, diplomacy has foundered over the question of whether Assad must be excluded from the transition, and Annan quit months later, saying the lack of agreement among U.N. powers made his job impossible.
(Reporting by Erika Solomon)