AMMAN (Reuters) - The United States sought on Friday to persuade the Syrian opposition to agree to attend international peace talks in Geneva, a day before President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents gather to decide on the issue, opposition sources said.
U.S. envoy Robert Ford met the senior leadership of the Syrian National Coalition in Istanbul to push them to approve the talks, which aim to end Syria’s two-year-old civil war by creating a transitional governing body, coalition members said.
But there were strong reservations in the coalition against giving blanket commitments, the opposition members said, and tension between Saudi Arabia and the United States, the main backers of the coalition, was adding to the uncertainty.
Riyadh has expressed disappointment with U.S. policy toward Syria in the wake of a deal between Moscow and Washington to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal that averted the threat of a Western military strike.
The 108 member coalition, which has little influence on the most formidable brigades fighting Assad, is due to meet on Saturday in Istanbul, with Geneva as the main item for discussions.
The meeting, expected to last at least two days, will also vote on admitting 11 new Kurdish members who are seen in favor of Geneva.
“The coalition will likely give only tacit approval to go. We feel we are being used as a scapegoat while the big powers themselves are in disagreement. How are we expected to go to talks for which we do not know the agenda?” one coalition source said.
“Ambassador) Ford is trying hard. But things are in flux. Saudi Arabia is angry and no one really knows in which direction the coalition will go,” another source said.
U.S. officials were not immediately available for comment on Friday’s reported meeting, which was not formally announced.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday he was confident a date could be set within days for the long-delayed international peace talks. Middle East officials had said the meeting was scheduled for November 23, though that date was not confirmed by Washington, Moscow or the United Nations.
The delay in setting the date would allow the coalition to meet on Saturday and agree its stance on the negotiations, Kerry added.
A draft document to be presented for a vote by the full coalition at the talks says Assad “cannot have any role in the transitional period or afterward”.
Syria and Iran say there must be no preconditions for peace talks.
Echoing a declaration in London last month by the Friends of Syria pro-opposition alliance, the document says “all regime officials involved in committing war crimes and crimes against humanity will not included in the political process”.
But Abdelrahman al-Haj, an influential opposition figure, said Russia and the United Nations must also indicate that Geneva will convene along these lines for the opposition to agree to the talks.
Haj said the opposition is adamant about sidelining Assad because the president and his brother directly control tens of thousands of troops in elite army units and intelligence who mostly belong to the ruling Alawite minority sect.
“The centralization in the regime and the sectarian loyalties means that if Assad remains the crisis will remain. There is no guarantee that he will give up control over the intelligence apparatus and elite army divisions,” Haj said.
With Assad’s forces and militia allies from Iran and Hezbollah intensifying an offensive against rebel held districts in Damascus in recent weeks, pressure has piled in the last few weeks on the coalition not to go.
Major Islamist rebel brigades have declared their opposition to Geneva if the conference does not result in Assad’s removal. Opposition sources say Ford, the U.S. envoy, may meet some of the signatories of the declaration in the next few days.
Even if the coalition votes to attend the peace talks, it still has to form a broad delegation which Washington wants to include some of the coalition’s rivals within the opposition.
Opposition sources say the coalition’s leadership has agreed to a proposal by the Syrian Democratic Union (SDU) bloc to convene a meeting on November 23 to discuss Geneva with other opposition groups, including some tolerated by the Assad government.
“There has to be consensus on Geneva that includes rebels and civil society,” said SDU member Bahiya Mardini. “We must secure the broadest approval possible from inside Syria to go.”
Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom; editing by Philippa Fletcher