Stance on Peace Talks Suggests Syria and West Differ on Tactics

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DAMASCUS, Syria -- Syria's deputy foreign minister, Fayssal Mekdad, said Tuesday that his government aimed to negotiate an end to the country's civil war by talking with a broad range of Syrians, from religious and community leaders to peaceful opposition groups, dismissing the main Western-backed exile opposition as having little influence on the ground.

The statements raised questions about the future of peace talks, because Mr. Mekdad's concept appeared to differ from the framework of a planned second peace conference, known as Geneva II, sponsored by global powers, for which talks between the government and the exile coalition were envisioned.

Even as the United Nations General Assembly convened in New York, where world leaders were expected to push for the peace talks and negotiate a resolution requiring Syria to turn over its chemical weapons, there was a growing sense here that the talks could be long in coming and could still fall apart over basic issues like who will participate.

Speaking with a renewed air of confidence since the United States backed off a planned military strike, Mr. Mekdad stuck to the government's longstanding insistence that it would not talk directly to any group carrying arms against it.

But he opened the door, however slightly, to talks with Syrian religious and community leaders "who have influence on the ground" with fighters. By acknowledging ties between elements of the armed opposition and parts of Syrian society, the offer represented a subtle shift in tone from the government's portrayal of the armed rebellion as a foreign-led conspiracy.

Still, the question of who within the diffuse opposition could both deliver results and be an acceptable negotiating partner to the government bedevils attempts to reach a political solution to the war in Syria, which has killed more than 100,000 people and forced millions from their homes.

Mr. Mekdad exuded confidence that President Bashar al-Assad's government had taken the upper hand against the rebels and said that even as it pledged to give up its chemical weapons to avoid a United States airstrike, the government had achieved diplomatic and military victories.

Sitting in an inlaid damascene chair in his office overlooking the city, Mr. Mekdad said the natural next step was an international push for Israel to relinquish its arsenal of nuclear weapons, which the neighboring state has never formally acknowledged and which was never linked to Syria's agreement to give up its chemical weapons stockpile.

He said the government was "100 percent sure" that rebels, not government forces, fired the chemical weapons that killed hundreds of people in the Damascus suburbs in August, a statement dismissed by American officials and at odds with some of the scientific findings of United Nations inspectors sent to investigate the chemical attack.

Asked about analyses of the inspectors' report that suggested the weapons could only have been operated by the government, and compass headings that indicated the chemicals were most likely fired from a government-held area that includes core military bases atop Mount Qasioun, he pointed to the mountain's ridge, a Damascus landmark, from his window.

"From that place, somebody may shoot at us now," he said. "Does it mean the government is killing the government?"

Asked whether the government would talk with civilians representing Syrian opposition fighters -- as opposed to foreign jihadist groups -- Mr. Mekdad said, "Don't put me in a place where I have to say who is a terrorist and who is not a terrorist," stopping short of implying, as the government often has, that anyone tied to the rebellion supports terrorism.

But Mr. Mekdad suggested the government doubted the usefulness of talking to leaders of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the exile group that the West and its Arab allies have tried to set up as the government's opposition counterpart and the civilian leadership of the loose-knit rebel Free Syrian Army. Excluding that group would be a nonstarter for the United States and its allies.

But Mr. Mekdad and prominent government supporters in Damascus said the coalition was increasingly irrelevant, not only lacking control over its own forces, but over foreign jihadist groups increasingly prominent on the battlefield -- a view widely shared by Syrians who oppose the government.

A Syrian journalist said recent fighting between armed groups in the rebel-held north changed the calculations of Syrian and Western leaders regarding the proposed talks in Geneva.

The journalist, who supports the government but requested anonymity to go beyond official statements, said he believed the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria was trying to seize ground from other rebel groups.

"I don't think Geneva is really close to us, but what is close to us is a huge problem," he said. "If we don't fight it in next two, three, four weeks, this means that inside of the Middle East, near Europe's border, there is a state auto-financed and controlled by terrorists."

He said he could even envision a situation in which an international coalition was formed to fight alongside the Syrian Army against the jihadists, a prospect that seemed unlikely for now as the West continues to insist Mr. Assad leave power.

Mr. Mekdad dismissed that notion and said the government sought a "peace coalition" to end the financing of armed opposition groups by America's allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar, adding that aid to the Syrian government from its allies Russia and Iran was permissible within relations between sovereign states.

Mr. Mekdad said that not only could elections be held as scheduled in 2014 -- and that Mr. Assad would win "in an landslide" -- but that major overhauls could also be carried out quickly.

But in separate interviews, two pro-government journalists said that it was doubtful elections could be held with a third of the country's population displaced, and that a militarily victorious government would most likely be tougher for the foreseeable future.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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