Opposition wants Geneva talks on political transition

929052DELAYED: Start of Syria talks in Kazakh capital delayed by one day –

BEIRUT/ROME: The main Syrian opposition body said on Wednesday it wanted face-to-face negotiations with the Damascus government about a political transition at peace talks that are due to begin in Geneva next week.
Salim al-Muslit, spokesman of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), also said the opposition was sticking to its position that President Bashar al-Assad can have no role in the transition, saying “the heavy price paid by the Syrian people” would have been wasted if he remained in power.
Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, has sought to revive diplomacy since its air force helped to defeat rebels in Aleppo in December, the Syrian leader’s biggest victory to date. Nearly six years into the war, Assad seems militarily unassailable thanks to the decisive backing of allies.
Muslit said the HNC, which includes rebel groups and political opponents of Assad, wanted to start the negotiations by discussing a governing body to oversee the transition.
Assad has previously ruled out that idea.
“We want direct negotiations, we want to save time, we want a quick end to the suffering of the Syrian people,” said Muslit. But he said the opposition had yet to receive an agenda for the talks, which are due to begin on February 23 following preliminary meetings beginning on February 20.
Disputes over the agenda have helped to torpedo previous rounds of Syria peace talks.
UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, speaking in Italy, said he would apply the agenda laid out in a UN Security Council resolution aimed at ending the conflict.
This is based on three main points – establishing a new form of governance, coming up with a new constitution and early elections under UN supervision, he said.
“That is the agenda and we will not change it, otherwise we open up a Pandora’s box,” said De Mistura, whose attempts to apply the same agenda to talks last year drew a sharp rebuke from Damascus.
The Syrian government should realise that the Geneva talks will not be “about procedures but about the future of Syria”, De Mistura added.
Turkey has jointly brokered with Russia a ceasefire to pave the way for the talks.
Pointing to the challenge facing the UN-led talks, separate Syria talks that had been due to take place in Kazakhstan were postponed on Wednesday for one day.
Rebel groups had threatened to boycott the Moscow-backed talks in the Kazakh capital Astana, saying Russia had failed to secure Damascus’s compliance with the ceasefire.
The HNC has named a 22-member delegation to the Geneva talks, including representatives of dissident groups that have strongly opposed the armed revolt against Assad. — Reuters