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'Zero chance' of Syria talks without goodwill steps from Damascus - opposition negotiator

BEIRUT (Reuters) - There will be no Syria peace talks if the government does not take humanitarian steps outlined by the U.N. Security Council, including a halt to attacks on civilians and an end to blockades, the opposition’s chief negotiator said on Thursday.

The negotiations, which are due to be begin on January 25 in Geneva, look increasingly uncertain for reasons including a dispute over the composition of the opposition delegation.

Mohamad Alloush, named chief negotiator on Wednesday by a Saudi-backed opposition council, is a member of the politburo of Jaysh al-Islam (Islam Army), a major rebel faction which Russia considers a terrorist group.

“The session will not take place until the measures are implemented ... While no measures are taken, the chances are zero,” Alloush told Reuters by telephone, referring to humanitarian steps outlined in a Dec. 18 U.N. Security Council resolution that endorsed a peace process for Syria.

“We don’t want to go to Geneva ... for photos,” he said.

The opposition has said clauses in the U.N. resolution including a release of arbitrarily detained people and a halt to attacks on civilian areas must be implemented before talks.

Damascus has said it is ready to take part, but the United Nations said on Monday it would not issue invitations until major powers that endorse the talks, including the United States and Russia, agree on who should represent the opposition.

U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura, who is tasked with launching the negotiations, said on Wednesday they may be delayed from the planned Jan. 25 start date.

The nomination of Alloush may add to the complications. While Russia views Jaysh al-Islam as a terrorist group, many of President Bashar al-Assad’s foes view it as a legitimate part of the Syrian opposition.

Russia, an ally of Assad, has meanwhile sought to widen the opposition delegation to include the main Syrian Kurdish party, the PYD, among others who did not attend last month’s Riyadh conference that established the new opposition council.

The PYD and affiliated YPG Kurdish militia set up an autonomous administration over wide areas of northern and northeastern Syria as the government’s authority diminished after the onset of the uprising in 2011.

The Syrian opposition accuses the Kurds of cooperating with Damascus - a charge they deny. The YPG has meanwhile established close ties with the United States, and is an important partner in the fight it is leading against Islamic State in Syria.

Alloush said the PYD’s “natural place” was with the government delegation. Russia and Iran, which both back Assad militarily, have rejected what they describe as Saudi-led efforts to organise the Syrian opposition for the talks.

Iran’s foreign minister said on Wednesday it was up to the U.N. to decide who represents the opposition, an apparent contradiction with the U.N. statement that the major powers must agree on which rebel representatives should attend.

Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky