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UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, left, speaks with UN-Arab League deputy envoy Nasser Al-Kidwa prior to a meeting at the United Nations office in Geneva, Switzerland, Friday, Dec. 20, 2013. Brahimi is meeting with U.S. and Russian delegations to try to agree which nations should be invited to Syria peace talks in Geneva next month.

Fabrice Coffrini, Associated Press - Ap

Syria's government and opposition agree to start peace talks

  • Article by: NICK CUMMING-BRUCE
  • New York Times
  • December 20, 2013 - 11:06 PM

– After months of diplomatic haggling and frustration, Syria’s government and opposition have committed to take part in a peace conference next month and will soon name their delegations, but Iran’s participation remains blocked by the United States, Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy coordinating preparations, said Friday.

Ministers from 26 countries will attend the opening of the conference, set for Jan. 22, ­Brahimi told reporters after meeting Wendy R. Sherman, a U.S. assistant secretary of state; Mikhail Bogdanov and Gennady Gatilov, Russian deputy foreign ministers; and senior officials from other concerned countries, underscoring the international desperation to at least start a discussion that may eventually end the 33-month-old conflict, which has cost more than 100,000 lives and left much of Syria in ruins.

“The message from today is that there is momentum for the conference from the two ­delegations who really count at the end of the day,” said a senior U.S. official attending Friday’s discussions, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

But after the daylong preparatory talks here, Brahimi and other participants made it clear that many crucial details remained uncertain.

Who’ll represent opposition?

The Syrian government has already selected its negotiators, he said, and has promised to name them soon. But on the thornier issue of who will appear for Syria’s factionalized and bitterly divided opposition, whose infighting frustrated efforts to convene the negotiations this year, Brahimi could suggest only, “Wait and see.”

Under intense pressure from the United States and European countries, Syria’s exile opposition coalition grudgingly agreed last month to participate in what is known in diplomatic shorthand as Geneva II, but the most militant Islamist rebels fighting inside Syria have rejected its authority and the negotiations. Fierce battles between rival rebel factions in recent weeks have called into question the coalition’s ability to pull together a delegation with sufficient credentials to negotiate credibly with the government.

The coalition is working very hard to make sure that it is inclusive and “representative of the kind of Syria that the people of Syria hope for,” the senior U.S. official said.

A second U.S. official said, “They are very conscious of the need to connect to the ground,” noting that only the militant Nusra Front and the Al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria had rejected the peace process outright.

Friday’s discussions failed to overcome the U.S. view that participation by Iran, a crucial regional ally of President Bashar Assad, would not be the right thing to do, Brahimi said.

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