Syrian opposition sharply divided ahead of peace talks

AP News
Posted: Jan 22, 2016 3:04 PM
Syrian opposition sharply divided ahead of peace talks

BEIRUT (AP) — Two days before peace talks are scheduled to begin in Geneva, Syrian groups opposed to President Bashar Assad are still sharply divided on who should represent them at the talks, opposition officials said Friday as a new wave of air raids in eastern Syria killed at least 40 people.

One senior Kurdish official denounced the negotiating team announced in Saudi Arabia last week as a "delegation of jihadis."

Many in the opposition say Russia wants to add names to the delegation that opposition groups backed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar announced this week in Saudi. The U.N.-backed talks between the Syrian government and opposition are scheduled for Monday although officials have said they might be delayed by few days.

Abdul-Basit Sieda of the Saudi-backed opposition said they reject Russia's desire to add names to the opposition list.

Another opposition official said Moscow wants to add to the delegation among others, Qadri Jamil, a former Syrian deputy prime minister, as well as Saleh Muslim, the co-president of the largest Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party or PYD.

Turkey, which has its own large and restive Kurdish population, strongly opposes any PYD participation. The PYD'S military wing has been instrumental in the fight against the Islamic State group in northern Syria. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to reveal details about the talks.

"The PYD wants to hijack the Kurdish cause in Syria," said Sieda, himself a Kurd, but an opponent of the PYD.

On Wednesday, senior opposition official, Riyad Hijab, announced the names of opposition negotiators saying they will be headed by army defector Asaad al-Zoubi and include Mohammad Alloush, a representative of an Islamic rebel group known as the Army of Islam. The Saudi-backed Army of Islam, which controls large parts of the suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus, is considered a terrorist organization by Syria and Russia.

Hijab accused Russia on Wednesday of obstructing the talks by trying to impose conditions on which opposition groups can participate, and said the opposition will not take part in talks while Syrians die from blockades and Russian and government airstrikes. Moscow is a key ally of the Syrian government and has been carrying out airstrikes against insurgents since Sept. 30.

Muslim, the PYD co-president, described in a telephone interview the team named in Saudi Arabia as a "delegation of Jihadis, Islamists and their allies that do not represent us." He added that the PYD has not been invited to the talks.

"Putting someone from the Army of Islam as a chief negotiator, means that they want to impose an Islamic state. He will lead and other members of the delegation must have similar opinions," Muslim said.

Sieda said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubair as well as Hijab during his visit to Saudi Arabia on Saturday to discuss the talks, adding that any changes of the names in the delegation will be up to the opposition.

On Thursday Kerry said that the opposing sides won't initially meet face-to-face in Geneva next week. The talks are the start of a process presented in a U.N. resolution that envisages an 18-month timetable for a political transition in Syria and other talks over ways to end the crisis.

But naming members of the armed opposition has angered some groups that are part of the Saudi delegation.

Mounzer Khaddam, a member of the Syria-based National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria who is part of the Saudi-named delegation, said in a statement that choosing a chief negotiator from the armed opposition "is a wrong message to the Syrian people that are hoping the talks will be successful."

Syria's nearly five-year civil war has killed more than 250,000 people, wounded a million and displaced half the country's population.

Meanwhile in Syria, opposition activists said air raids on two villages in an eastern province killed at least 40 people and wounded scores more.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the air raids on the villages of Tabiah and Bouleil killed 40 people, including whole families. The Local Coordination Committees said the air raids killed 30 in Tabiah and dozens in Bouleil.

Opposition activist Omar Abu Leila said Friday's air raids hit the two villages that are under the control of the Islamic State group, saying all those killed were civilians.

The LCC and Abu Leila said the air raids were carried out by Russian warplanes but it was not possible to independently confirm the claim.

IS controls most of Deir el-Zour province and over the past week launched a wide offensive capturing some areas from government forces near the provincial capital city of Deir el-Zour.