March 2, 2017 / 1:27 PM / 10 months ago

At peace talks, Syria rebels urge Trump to correct Obama's "catastrophic mistakes"

GENEVA (Reuters) - The lead Syrian opposition negotiator at peace talks in Geneva said he hoped U.S. President Donald Trump would correct the “catastrophic” errors of his predecessor Barack Obama to become a reliable partner against “devilish” Iran.

The U.N.-led negotiations edged forwards on Wednesday, for the first time in six days, as both sides saw hope of shaping the agenda to their liking, but with indirect talks wrapping up this weekend there is little prospect of any real breakthrough.

“The people in Syria paid a high price because of the catastrophic mistakes made by the Obama administration,” Nasr al-Hariri told reporters in a briefing after meeting U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura.

“Obama lied and he didn’t keep any of the promises he made for the Syrian people. He drew red lines that he erased himself, he kept silent on crimes committed by Bashar al-Assad.”

Obama long maintained that Assad, Syrian president for 17 years, must step down after presiding over a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions.

The United States has provided training, weapons and funding for rebel groups, but stopped short of attacking Assad’s forces, which slowly turned the tide of the war with massive Russian and Iranian help.

“We reiterated the devilish role that Iran is playing through hundreds of thousands of fighters on the Syrian soil,” Hariri said in response to a question on what he had told Russian officials during their landmark meeting on Thursday.

The opposition and the Russians had not previously met at the Geneva talks. Diplomats said the meeting may be uncomfortable for Assad, Moscow’s ally, who regards his opponents as terrorists.

Trump has said his priority is to fight Islamic State, which has left Russia in the diplomatic driving seat and put Russia, Turkey and Iran in charge of overseeing a shaky ceasefire.

He has also made it clear he wants to rein in Tehran’s regional ambitions.

Trump’s administration has so far done little to suggest it is willing to engage in finding a political solution for Syria.

“Their policy is still unknown,” said a Western diplomat at the talks. “They are almost not here.”

While Western envoys were coordinating with the Syrian opposition in Geneva, the U.S. envoy kept his head down and left after a few days to deal with other issues.

“The U.S. is not a direct participant in the UN-led talks,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Mission in Geneva said. “The U.S. remains committed to any process that can result in a political resolution to the Syrian crisis.”

When asked during a White House briefing this week about the talks, spokesman Sean Spicer gave no clear answer on how Washington saw the process or Assad’s role.

Hariri said the opposition had common ground with Trump because both wanted to fight terrorism and curtail Iranian influence. Washington, he said, should support the opposition.

“We are really waiting for the United States to build their positions on true information to have an active role in the region and to correct the grave mistakes of the Obama administration,” Hariri said.

Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alison Williams

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