Syrian peace talks to start Jan. 22

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BEIRUT -- Long-delayed peace talks designed to end the civil war in Syria will begin Jan. 22 in Geneva, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced Monday, amid growing international alarm about the rise of Islamic militant rebels inside the country.

The so-called Geneva 2 negotiations -- sponsored by the United States and Russia -- would be the first meeting between the Syrian government and opposition representatives in an effort to end to the 32-month-old war.

Despite Monday's announcement, some observers expressed pessimism that that talks would come off. There is considerable doubt about whether a broad variety of opposition representatives will agree to attend without guarantees that the process would lead to the departure of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The aim of talks is to set up a transitional government in Damascus based on the "mutual consent" of the opposing parties. The transitional administration would have full executive powers, including control of military and security units, according to a plan devised last year by world powers.

In comments backing the planned meeting, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry emphasized "the growing threat from extremism and foreign fighters within Syria."

The rise of al-Qaida-linked factions in the rebel ranks has caused consternation in Washington and other Western capitals. Many fear a consolidation of militant enclaves in the heart of the Middle East. U.S. and European officials also worry that Syrian-trained terrorists, including many with Western passports, will leave Syria and wreak havoc elsewhere.

The Geneva talks had been scheduled for May, but differences among Syria's opposition forces have kept both sides from negotiations. The U.N. announcement Monday appears to be an effort to force the issue and set a firm date for what could be a forum laying the groundwork for a new political order in Syria.

The transitional administration in Syria is meant to lead to free elections and a democratic government. Syria has been ruled for more than four decades by the Assad family and its allies.

Mr. Assad's government, which has had strong backing from Russia, has said it will send representatives to the Geneva 2 talks. But the divided opposition has not made a similar guarantee.

The major, U.S.-backed political opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, has a limited presence in Syria and has been rejected as illegitimate by some rebel groups fighting in the country. The coalition has named several conditions for participating in peace talks, including the opening of corridors for humanitarian aid, the release of prisoners and a guarantee of Mr. Assad's eventual ouster -- a demand rejected by the Syrian government.

Various Islamist rebel alliances, some aligned with al-Qaida, have sprung up inside Syria, and several have rejected both the U.S.-backed coalition and any plan for talks that does not result in Mr. Assad's departure. Officials have said the al-Qaida groups will not be invited to Geneva.

It is not clear what countries will be invited to attend the conference, aside from the United States, Russia and Syria. In particular, officials said Monday that it was not known whether Saudi Arabia and Iran, bitter rivals in Middle Eastern politics, would be invited. Iran supports Mr. Assad's government, while Saudi Arabia supports the opposition.



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