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US-Backed Syria Peace Talks, Due This Week, Look Precarious

Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, shake hands after speaking to the media together in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

( – With a rapidly approaching deadline for the start of eagerly awaited Syria peace talks, key players appear as divided as ever over who should be allowed to participate, while Secretary of State John Kerry stands accused of embracing positions long held by Iran and Russia.

After Kerry met in Riyadh on Saturday night with members of the so-called High Negotiations Committee (HNC) – a rebel body formed in Saudi Arabia last month to represent the opposition in the talks in Geneva – spokesperson John Kirby issued a brief readout that gave little to no indication of the tone or substance of the meeting.

But a number of Arab news reports since then point to a difficult encounter, with sources claiming that Kerry threatened a withdrawal of all U.S. support for the opposition if it did not go to Geneva for U.N.-brokered talks aimed at ending the five-year war.

The reports also claimed that Kerry had told the HNC the proceedings in Geneva would be “talks,” not “negotiations,” and that the goal was a “unity government” rather than a “transitional governing body.”

If that is true, it would mark a departure from the 2012 Geneva communique, the document which up to now has formed the basis of attempts to negotiate an end to the civil war. The communique called unambiguously for a “transitional governing body,” to be formed on the basis of “mutual consent” between regime and rebel representatives.

For the opposition, a unity government implies a more substantial role for elements of the Assad regime. Up to now calls for a unity government instead of a transitional governing body have come primarily from Iran, the regime’s main ally.

Perhaps most significantly, according to the Arab media reports based on leaks from the Kerry/HNC meeting the secretary of state did not rule out the idea that President Bashar al-Assad could stand for re-election in the future if he wished to do so.

Assad’s Iranian and Russian sponsors have long argued for that position. Late last month Bloomberg reported that President Vladimir Putin had told Kerry at a Dec. 14 meeting that Assad cannot be prevented from running for re-election. It also cited Russian and Western officials as saying that U.S. opposition to Russia’s stand on the matter was “weakening.”

In a series of tweets Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi and a visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center, highlighted the reported elements of the meeting between Kerry and the HNC representatives, calling them “shocking to say the least.”

Deep divisions

In November the group of nations known as the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) agreed on a plan involving a nation-wide ceasefire, coupled with negotiations between the regime and rebels, leading to elections and a new constitution within 18 months.

The U.N. wants those negotiations to begin by a January 30 deadline. They were initially to have begun on…

 if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.


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