UNITED NATIONS — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced on Monday that the Syrian government and opposition will meet at the negotiating table in Geneva for the first time on January 22 - though neither side has confirmed this.
The U.N. chief told reporters in New York that the meeting will be a “mission of hope” and would have a clear objective.
“And we have a clear goal: the full implementation of the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012, including the establishment, based on mutual consent, of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, including over military and security entities,” he said.
This had been a sticking point for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and its ally Russia, which interpreted it as an attempt to oust Mr. Assad.
Mr. Ban said for the first time the Syrian sides will meet at the negotiating table instead of on the battlefield, and he urged all parties with influence on the conflict to support the talks.
“I expect all partners and parties to demonstrate their support for constructive negotiations," he said. "All must show vision and leadership.”
Mr. Ban said the conflict, which has raged on for nearly three years, has left more than 100,000 dead and displaced almost nine million more inside the country and in the region, putting what he termed an “unacceptable burden” on Syria’s neighbors.
Iran's participation in question
The U.N. chief did not specify which Syrian opposition factions will attend the peace conference. He also did not say whether Iran will be invited to the negotiations.
Western powers have expressed reservations about Tehran’s possible participation because it has not accepted the terms of the first Geneva conference’s communique. Tehran has also provided fighters to President Assad and supports Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which has militants fighting alongside government forces against the armed opposition.
In Geneva, Mr. Ban’s special representative on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, told reporters that the complete list of participants is still under discussion. On Iran, he said both the U.N. chief and the head of the Arab League have expressed their willingness to have Tehran attend.
Brahimi said he would meet again on December 20 with representatives from the United States and Russia, who have been helping to organize the conference.
He said he is in touch with both the Syrian government and opposition, and has asked them to name their delegations as early as possible, preferably before the end of this year.
“Because I think it’s important that we meet them and speak to them and listen to them," Brahimi said. "Because this conference is really for the Syrians to come to Geneva to talk to one another and to hopefully start a credible, workable, effective peace process for their country.”
Brahimi said all issues would be on the table at Geneva, including what form the transitional governing authority would take and what powers it would have.
In advance of the talks, Brahimi urged both sides to undertake some confidence-building measures, including halting violence and releasing prisoners and detainees.
The Geneva Two conference has been delayed for months due to disputes about who will attend, and under what conditions. Secretary-General Ban said it will be "unforgivable not to seize (the) opportunity" of the January gathering.
The Syrian conflict began in March 2011 as peaceful protests against President Assad's autocratic rule and coincided with a wave of popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. The Syrian unrest evolved into a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people and forced millions from their homes.