GENEVA International mediator Lakhdar Brahimi has given Syria's warring sides until December 27 to name their delegations to planned peace negotiations next month, officials said on Thursday.
About 30 ministers from big powers, regional countries and others are due to gather in the resort of Montreux on January 22 to give their blessing to the negotiations between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and rebels fighting to oust him.
Then Brahimi will broker the first face-to-face Syrian talks in Geneva from January 23. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is to confirm the Montreux ministerial venue shortly - Geneva hotels will be full at the time due to an annual luxury watch fair.
The stated goal is to agree a transitional government with full powers to end a 1,000-day-old conflict that has killed well over 100,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes.
Brahimi has set a deadline for Damascus and the opposition to name their teams to the "Geneva 2 conference", which follows one held by his predecessor Kofi Annan in June 2012. Those talks did not formally involve the Syrian government and its foes.
The envoy's spokeswoman, Khawla Mattar, said Brahimi wanted the delegations named by December 27. "That is the deadline by which Mr Brahimi should receive the names of the Syrian delegations and who is leading them," she said.
This is unlikely to present a problem to Assad's government, but his opponents are deeply divided and in disarray.
"The biggest challenge is the opposition delegation. There is still no agreement," an Arab diplomat said.
General Salim Idriss, head of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, said on November 26 that his group would shun the peace conference and pursue its fight to topple Assad regardless.
The Syrian National Coalition opposition group, which also has Western support but minimal influence over fighters on the ground, has said it is ready to attend, but demands that Assad play no role in the proposed transitional government.
"With every day that passes the opposition is getting more fractured," said a Western diplomat. "We have to make sure they turn up and they are united. That is the biggest challenge."
COACHING THE OPPOSITION
Experts from the United Nations and Western allies are helping prepare opposition representatives for tough negotiations. "The Swiss are doing it, the Americans too. They are training them in negotiating skills," said one source.
The Western diplomat said: "They need a lot of work, they have to be ready to come to the table, be ready to speak, have a communications strategy and understand the negotiating process."
Brahimi is to meet U.S. and Russian officials in Geneva on December 20 to try to settle the divisive issue of the guest list for the ministerial meeting, particularly whether to invite Syria's ally Iran.
The former Algerian foreign minister and veteran U.N. envoy has said he wants both Iran and Saudi Arabia at the table.
Some expect a diplomatic solution on Iran to be finessed.
"There might be some fudge in which you would have certain countries within the room itself and then a delegation in the corridor and not getting access to the main negotiating chamber, but in some way present," a diplomatic source suggested.
Washington has said Iran cannot be included unless it approves the text agreed in Geneva on June 30, 2012 which set out a roadmap for transition but left open Assad's part in it.
"Iran won't accept the notion of political transition," the diplomatic source said.
Assad, emboldened by a string of military successes, has said he will send delegates to the Geneva talks but will accept no preconditions and will put any agreement to a referendum - a vote which opposition figures say will be rigged against them.
It is not yet clear how long the peace conference being held at the U.N. European headquarters in Geneva will last.
"Once it starts, he (Brahimi) wants there to be a timeframe for the two Syrian delegations, it should not be open-ended," Mattar said.
The Western diplomat said getting the two sides in the same room would be a major achievement, but that that would only be a start. "It will probably be a year and take several rounds."
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alistair Lyon)