Newspaper article International New York Times

Dispute over Who Will Attend Syria Talks Threatens Delay

Newspaper article International New York Times

Dispute over Who Will Attend Syria Talks Threatens Delay

Article excerpt

There are new worries that the talks will be pushed back, and with them any hopes for a cease-fire, as Syrians continue to die from shelling and starvation.

Barely a month after the world's most powerful countries agreed to an ambitious road map to end the five-year war in Syria, there is still no agreement on who, if anyone, will show up at the peace talks that are supposed to begin in Geneva next Monday.

Instead, there are new worries that the talks will be pushed back, and with them any hopes for a cease-fire, as Syrians continue to die from shelling and starvation.

The new dispute revolves around the lingering question of who gets to represent the opposition delegation.

Saudi Arabia wants its handpicked rebel bloc alone to represent the opposition to the government of President Bashar al-Assad -- and it has threatened to pull its proxies out of the process if others are added to the delegation, United Nations diplomats said.

Russia, which supports the Syrian government, insists on a broader opposition bloc; otherwise, it has suggested, the government side would not attend. "Mutual vetoes on who should be invited" is how one diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the talks, described the threats.

And so, less than a week before the talks are set to take place, the United Nations mediator, Staffan de Mistura, has yet to issue invitations and says he will do so only after world leaders iron out their differences over who can attend, diplomats said.

It is up to the United Nations to decide who can come, and those who impose new conditions risk losing out on the chance to have a seat at the table to discuss the future of Syria. A spokesman for the United Nations, Farhan Haq, hinted at the possibility of a delay in the talks, or "a slippage" in the dates.

The talks are part of a painstakingly assembled process negotiated by countries with deep stakes in the war, including the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

In a plan endorsed by the United Nations Security Council in mid- December, government and opposition representatives were instructed to discuss a negotiated settlement to the conflict, including a cease-fire and a plan to draft a new constitution and hold elections in 18 months.

On Monday, Mr. de Mistura told a closed session of the Security Council that the goal of negotiating a cease-fire remained a ways off, diplomats said, and that it was important instead to get the warring parties to lift sieges on key towns so food and medicine can reach people trapped there. The United Nations has accused the government of preventing food and medicines from reaching about 180,000 people in rebel-held areas; it has accused a rebel coalition of besieging about 12,000 people and the Islamic State of besieging an additional 200,000 in government-held areas. …

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