GENEVA – Syria’s government and opposition will on January 22 sit down at the negotiating table for the first time since the country’s civil war erupted in 2011, the UN announced Monday.
In a statement announcing the date, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the warring sides would finally meet for the long-elusive Geneva II peace negotiations which repeatedly have been postponed.
“The conflict in Syria has raged for too long. It would be unforgivable not to seize this opportunity to bring an end to the suffering and destruction it has caused,” he said.
Ban hailed efforts by the United States and Russia, and UN and Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi to pave the way for the conference.
“We will go to Geneva with a mission of hope. The Geneva conference is the vehicle for a peaceful transition that fulfils the legitimate aspirations of all the Syrian people for freedom and dignity, and which guarantees safety and protection to all communities in Syria,” he said.
The announcement came as Brahimi held closed-door meeting in Geneva with senior US and Russian officials to pin down details for the conference.
“The purpose is to finalise all the preparations and agree on details for Geneva II,” Brahimi’s spokeswoman Khawla Mattar told AFP.
The international community has struggled to broker talks between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels battling him since a bloody March 2011 crackdown on Arab Spring-inspired protests.
The increasingly sectarian civil war had claimed more than 120,000 lives, driven more than two million people from the country and left millions more within Syria reliant on international aid to survive.
The so-called Geneva II conference is meant as a follow-up to one held in June 2012, where world powers issued a call for a Syrian transition government.
But Syria’s warring sides failed to agree on whether Assad or his inner circle could play a role in the process, and amid spiralling fighting plans for Geneva II have repeatedly been put on hold.
Russia, Assad’s key world-power ally, has been pressing the Syrian government to cooperate on the conference. The United States, Britain and France have been working on the fractured Syrian opposition.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition has agreed to attend a peace conference.
But its authority is threatened by Islamist and other militant groups which have warned that anyone taking part in talks will be deemed a traitor.
The coalition has also demanded that Assad stand down, while the government, in turn, has insisted that the president’s future cannot be a matter for discussion.
Ban said the goal was “full implementation” of the 2012 document, “including the establishment, based on mutual consent, of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, including over military and security entities.”
He said he expected all Syria players to come to Geneva with a “clear understanding” of that aim, and a “serious intention” to end the war.
Iran is also a key supporter of Assad, and Russia has sought to have Tehran involved in any peace talks, raising hackles in the West and in Saudi Arabia, a key opposition supporter.
But hopes of new headway were raised after world powers on Sunday reached a landmark deal with Iran to rein in the Islamic republic’s controversial nuclear programme, after almost five days of intensive talks in Geneva.
As top diplomats huddled in Geneva last week for the Iran negotiations, they were also laying the groundwork for the Syria conference, with Brahimi meeting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
Iran has yet to accept the Geneva declaration of 2012, and Western nations say it should not be involved in peace talks until it does.
“The compromise may be that Iran and Saudi Arabia will take part in meetings around the conference, but not the formal talks,” said a senior Western official.