U.S. Mounts Last-Ditch Effort to Save Syria Talks as Turks Threaten Boycott

U.S. Mounts Last-Ditch Effort to Save Syria Talks as Turks Threaten Boycott

The United States is mounting a last-ditch effort to salvage stalled political talks aimed at ending Syria’s nearly five-year civil war, deploying high-level delegations to Turkey and Saudi Arabia this weekend to head off possible boycotts by the Syrian opposition and one of its major backers, Ankara.

Turkey has privately warned the United Nations that it will walk out of the political process, which initially were set to start Monday, if Syrian Kurds whom Ankara accuses of being linked to a terrorist organization are included among the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey’s threat, revealed to Foreign Policy by U.N.-based diplomats, has not been previously reported.

In a meeting Saturday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will urge Turkey’s leaders to continue participating in the U.N.-sponsored peace talks — even if the Syrian Kurdish negotiators are invited, according to U.N.-based officials.

At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will press Saudi officials and Syrian opposition leaders in Riyadh not to boycott the talks if the United Nations invites other rival opposition groups backed by Russia and Egypt, the officials said. Those groups, which attended peace talks in Moscow last August and in Cairo in June, are suspected by Syria’s armed rebels of being too close to Assad’s government to be trusted.

Turkey is refusing to engage with Kurds affiliated with the Democratic Union Party and its military affiliate, the People’s Protection Units, according to senior U.N.-based diplomats. Earlier this week, a Turkish delegation led by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu issued its warning to withdraw from the International Syria Support Group, the multilateral group of nations overseeing the peace process, to the U.N.’s envoy, Staffan de Mistura, in Davos, Switzerland.

Who sits among the opposition negotiators has emerged as the key sticking point in landmark political talks with the Syrian government that were scheduled to begin Jan. 25 in Geneva. But de Mistura said he would not issue invitations to the talks until the big powers, particularly the United States and Russia, agreed on who would represent the opposition.

After meeting in Zurich, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday that they are committed to seeing the talks start before the end of the month.

The State Department remains tight-lipped about its efforts to prevent the talks from unraveling, as it is wary of appearing to dictate the composition of the Syrian opposition to the Syrians and regional governments.

“There is no final agreement yet,” a State Department official told Foreign Policy on Friday, noting Kerry’s meeting Saturday in Riyadh and his “frequent contact” with de Mistura and officials in Moscow and other countries over the peace talks.

During a Friday speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Kerry said world powers made progress on a plan for “direct negotiations” between Assad’s regime and the opposition to begin “soon” in Geneva. But shortly after the speech, opposition leaders ruled out even indirect talks with Damascus until Russian jets stop bombing rebel targets in Syria.

“There must be a halt to the bombardment of civilians by Russian planes, and sieges of blockaded areas must be lifted,” George Sabra, a senior member of the opposition delegation, told Reuters. “The conditions must be appropriate for the negotiations.”

The ultimatum, which few believe Russia will heed, also threatens to upend the talks. But the foremost issue is resolving who exactly gets to speak for the Syrian opposition.

Last month in Riyadh, Saudi officials gathered more than 100 members of key opposition groups, including some of the main armed factions, to fashion a negotiating delegation. The group, which is known as the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), announced Thursday that a member of a Saudi-backed Islamist group, Jaish al-Islam, would serve as the chief negotiator. The HNC has also threatened to boycott the talks if any other opposition groups are invited.

The United States, Britain, France, and other opposition supporters recognize the Riyadh gathering as the primary negotiating delegation. But Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, assured de Mistura during a closed-door Security Council meeting Monday that he had the right to send invitations to other individuals he deemed suitable for the talks, two Security Council diplomats who attended the meeting told FP.

Russia, which has accused some HNC members, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, of being terrorists, has pressed for expanding the number of opposition groups that are to attend the Geneva talks.

Russia’s U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, told the U.N. Security Council on Monday that the Kurds’ Democratic Union Party needs to be represented.

Russia has also argued that other opposition leaders should be invited, including the so-called Moscow group, which met with Lavrov in the Russian capital last August. That group’s coordinator is Qadri Jamil, a former Syrian deputy prime minister who headed the delegation to Moscow. Jamil is seen as a close ally of Russia. Moscow also wants the U.N. to invite Haytham Manna, an exiled Syrian writer who helped organize the Cairo conference, according to a U.N.-based diplomat.

After meeting with Kerry in Zurich on Wednesday, Lavrov said a U.N. Security Council resolution instructs de Mistura to “convene the broadest possible groups of representatives for the peace talks” — Assad’s regime and opposition leaders, including those from groups that met in Moscow, Cairo, and Riyadh.

“This is not for anyone outside the U.N. — but for the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, to decide,” Lavrov said.

Still, Lavrov said, Moscow has not “backed off from our stance regarding the terrorist essence” of Jaish al-Islam, which he accused of shelling “residential districts in Damascus, including the Russian Embassy,” and Ahrar al-Sham, which he called “an offspring of al Qaeda.”

Saudi Arabia and Turkey don’t believe that de Mistura — or Russia or Iran, for that matter — should have any role in deciding who should represent the opposition.

“The Syrian opposition is the party which decides who represents it in the talks,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Tuesday. He called the HNC “the concerned party, and they are the ones who decide who represents them in the talks.”

Turkey maintains that the Democratic Union Party and the People’s Protection Units are subsidiaries of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is recognized by the United States and Turkey as a terrorist organization. Turkey claims the two Kurdish groups are not legitimate opposition groups and accuses them of collaborating with Assad’s government.

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