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Friends of Syria Push Opposition Toward Geneva Talks


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry joined other foreign ministers backing opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Paris Sunday. They are trying to bring together disparate civilian and military components of the uprising ahead of planned peace talks later this month. Syria's government and its opponents remain divided over the purpose of those talks.

Rival opponents of Assad battle for control of parts of Aleppo. The main rebel coalition fights to reverse gains by extremist militias allied with al-Qaida.

In Paris, foreign ministers discussed those developments as they worked to strengthen Syria's more moderate opposition ahead of peace talks planned in Geneva this month.

"The international community must gather around a single conviction that there is no other solution for the Syrian tragedy than a political solution and there is no possibility to achieve one if the Geneva talks do not take place," said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

But Assad opponents have not committed to those talks because of differences about who truly represents the Syrian people, said U.S. Institute of Peace analyst Steve Heydemann.

"The Syrian coalition feels quite insecure about whether it would participate in Geneva as the sole, legitimate representative of the Syrian people. There's concern that their participation could be compromised if groups outside of the coalition were invited to Geneva in the name of inclusion," he said.

And that's putting pressure on the so-called Friends of Syria -- mostly Western and Gulf Arab governments that back Syria's opposition.

"If the core Friends of Syria group can not bring to Geneva a broad enough cross section of the opposition to make those negotiations credible, then the outcome is never going to be accepted, never going to be taken as legitimate by groups on the ground, particularly armed groups," said Heydemann.

The head of Syria's main civilian opposition, Ahmad al-Jarba, met with foreign ministers in Paris Sunday and said Syrians were united behind removing their president.

"The most important aspect of today's meeting is that we all agree to say that Assad has no future in Syria," he said.

But President Assad said he's not stepping down, and that these talks would be about fighting terrorists, among whom he includes the armed opposition. Assad was in a far stronger position than he was a year ago, said former U.S. ambassador Adam Ereli, and that made the talks even more difficult.

"If I'm sitting in Damascus in the presidential palace, I'll say: 'What transition? What the heck are you talking about? I'm not going anywhere, and who's going to make me?'," he said.

Beyond the question of Syria's opposition, there's also the issue of whether and how Iran might join the talks in Geneva. That's the focal point of talks here between Secretary Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday.
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