U.N. officials say a long-awaited Syrian peace conference will be held on January 22 in Geneva, but the list of attendees remains uncertain.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the Syrian government and opposition will "meet at the negotiating table instead of the battlefield" for the first time since Syria's conflict began in 2011.
"The Geneva conference is the vehicle for a peaceful transition that fulfills the legitimate aspirations of all the Syrian people for freedom and dignity, and which guarantees safety and protection to all communities in Syria."
Mr. Ban said the peace conference must lead to the full implementation of a Geneva Communiqué agreed by regional powers in June 2012. That document calls for Syria's warring sides to agree on the establishment of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, including over military and security entities.
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. In an earlier statement released by his spokesman, Mr. Ban said he expects "all regional and international partners" to show "meaningful support for constructive negotiations."
Western powers previously have objected to Iran's participation in a peace conference, accusing Tehran of worsening the conflict by providing material support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They also cite Iran's refusal to accept the 2012 Geneva Communiqué.
Russian news agency Interfax said Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov reiterated Russia's support for Iran to be included in the gathering. Russia and Iran are two of Mr. Assad's longtime allies. But, Gatilov said more negotiations are needed among regional powers to decide which external parties will be invited to Geneva.
U.N.-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said the exiled Syrian National Coalition will play a "very important role" in forming the Syrian opposition delegation.
In a separate briefing to the media, Brahimi said he hopes the Syrian parties can name their delegations by the end of the year. He also appealed to them to begin confidence building steps and reduce violence without waiting for the Geneva conference.
The SNC has limited influence over Syrian rebels, particularly Islamists who have formed their own coalitions in a bid to create an Islamic state in Syria.
The Geneva 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.