The chief of the Arab League announced on Sunday a date for an attempt at Syrian peace talks, raising a glimmer of hope for a political solution to the ongoing civil war more than a year after an initial round of talks collapsed.
Nabil Elaraby, the head of the Cairo-based Arab League, said international powers would convene talks between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and opposition leaders on Nov. 23 in Geneva. Elaraby told reporters that the announcement was the result of discussions with Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria.
But in the same news conference in Cairo, Brahimi said an official date had not been set, the Reuters news agency reported.
Syrian opposition leaders swiftly dismissed the announcement as unwarranted hype in a process that has been repeatedly delayed. “They are saying there is a meeting, and I am saying that there isn’t yet,” said Haitham Maleh, a member of the main Syrian Opposition Coalition.
Syria’s information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, said that the government was ready to attend the Geneva talks but that it would not negotiate with “terrorists,” the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported. The regime has consistently labeled the rebels as terrorists.
A “political solution has been an original choice for the Syrian government since the beginning of aggression on Syria,” Zoubi told the Lebanese satellite network al-Manar, according to SANA.
In attempting to bring opposition leaders and regime officials to the negotiating table more than two years into a conflict estimated to have killed more than 100,000 people, mediators have operated largely beyond the reality of events inside Syria, where regime shelling, attacks by rebels and fierce clashes kill dozens of people every day.
As Elaraby announced the November talks, a suicide truck bomber struck at a government checkpoint in the Syrian city of Hama on Sunday, killing at least 37 people, SANA reported. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based pro-
opposition watchdog, put the death toll at 43. It was the second deadly vehicle bombing at a government checkpoint in as many days.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition — the most likely group to represent Assad’s foes at the negotiating table — holds little sway inside Syria, where competing rebel factions, as well as foreign fighters and financiers, are part of the effort to topple Assad.
Islamist extremists, who appear better organized and better funded than moderate rebels, have increasingly commanded the bulk of rebel fighting power and have exercised force against their adversaries within the opposition.
A spokesman for the Syrian Opposition Coalition said rebel leaders would not consider any date for peace talks official until such an announcement comes from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. So far, the coalition had not been notified, Khalid Saleh said.
“As far as our attendance, we have not made a final decision,” he said.
Plans for peace talks have broken down repeatedly over the opposition’s insistence on a precondition that Assad be denied any role in a political transition or future state. Assad’s regime has said that it will not negotiate with armed rebels, a demand that would disqualify most opposition figures who have leverage.
Saleh said that the coalition would be “the first ones to the table” if the talks took on the appearance of a serious thrust toward a political transition but that Sunday’s announcement probably signified “more of the same.”
“The Geneva conference must be about one thing and one thing only, and that is a transition to democracy,” Saleh said. “When we say transition to democracy, that means that Mr. Assad does not have any place in the transition or the future of Syria.”
Musab Abu Qatada, a spokesman for the Damascus Military Council, a unit of the more-
moderate Free Syrian Army, said that he would support peace talks but that he, like many others in Syria, remains deeply skeptical.
“This regime has broken promises before. That’s why we don’t want any trace of it to stay in the country,” said Abu Qatada, who uses a pseudonym. “The only condition that the people are not willing to give up is the total departure of Assad and his regime.”