Syrian government says too early for more U.N.-backed peace talks

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 24, 2015 9:02 AM

By Laila Bassam and Sylvia Westall

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria's foreign minister said on Friday it was too early to hold another United Nations-backed peace conference on Syria, indicating the dim prospects for diplomacy as a U.N. envoy wraps up three months of consultations on the war.

Walid al-Moualem also reiterated his government's view that Iran's support for Damascus would continue after its nuclear deal with world powers including the United States, which says President Bashar al-Assad must leave power.

He was speaking at a "conference against terrorism" in Damascus, sharing the podium with the visiting Iranian minister of culture and Islamic guidance and the deputy head of the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside the Syrian army in the four-year-old war.

U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, who met Moualem in Damascus on Thursday, is due to brief the Security Council next week about his discussions with parties involved in the war.

The U.N. has hosted two major conferences on Syria since 2011, the last of which brought together the government and representatives of the opposition. Those talks ended in failure early last year.

"We think that going to Geneva 3 is premature unless the Syrians address their issues among themselves," Moualem told a televised conference in Damascus.

He said the Syrian government welcomed the idea of more talks with members of the Syrian opposition hosted by Russia. Two such rounds of talks were held in Moscow earlier this year but were not attended by the main Western-backed opposition coalition or any of the armed groups fighting Assad.

In Brussels, members of that coalition and another opposition group said they were working on their own a "roadmap" for ending the war.

"The international community needs to force the regime to the negotiating table," said Hadi al-Bahra, a member of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

Bahra said an international communique on Syria agreed three years ago - which called for political transition but left Assad's role unresolved - needed to be revitalized.

RUSSIA PUSHING FOR RAPPROCHEMENT

Battlefield defeats for Assad this year had led some Western officials to believe it might be possible to reach an agreement that would see him eventually leave power and end the war that has killed a quarter of a million people.

But the setbacks also triggered renewed pledges of support for Assad from Iran, his main regional ally, which has not shown any change in stance towards Damascus. Hezbollah has said there is no political solution in the foreseeable future.

Moualem said Iran's position towards Syria would not change, though "there are those in the West, foremost among them the United States, that believe this agreement will enable the West to influence Iranian positions towards the Syrian crisis".

Assad's other main foreign ally, Russia, is trying to bring about rapprochement between the Syrian government and regional states hostile to it - including Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

The stated aim is to forge an alliance to fight Islamic State, which has seized large areas of Iraq and Syria.

Late last month President Vladimir Putin said Russian contacts with Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia had showed all agreed on fighting the hardline Islamic State group in Syria. Putin called on Syria to begin a dialogue with such countries.

Moualem reiterated his view that forging such an alliance in the short term required "a miracle". But he held open the possibility in the medium term, saying the threat of terrorism would force neighboring states into an alliance with Damascus.

Russia's ambassador to Lebanon brought up the idea of the coalition in comments published on Friday, saying Moscow wanted to bring Syria and Saudi Arabia closer together.

Asked about such efforts, Alexander Zaspikin told Lebanese daily Annahar: "We are still at the beginning."

(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels; Editing by Tom Perry and Dominic Evans)