Damascus says ready for talks, wants list of ‘terrorist groups’

Damascus says ready for talks, wants list of ‘terrorist groups’

BEIRUT - Reuters
Damascus says ready for talks, wants list of ‘terrorist groups’

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem attends a press conference in Beijing. AFP photo

Syria's government told a U.N. envoy on Jan. 9 it was ready to participate in Geneva peace talks later this month but said officials wanted to know who would take part from the opposition. 

Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, who met U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura in Damascus, also demanded a list of groups that would be classified as terrorist, state media reported. 

The Geneva talks scheduled for Jan. 25 are part of an international bid to end the five-year conflict that has killed an estimated 250,000 people. The plan for a hoped-for ceasefire envisages defining "terrorist groups" in Syria, one of many tough issues facing diplomats. 

The Syrian government views all the groups fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad as terrorists, including rebels represented in a recently formed opposition council tasked with overseeing the negotiations. 

Syrian rebels and opposition politicians have expressed doubts over whether the peace talks will begin as planned. Earlier this week, they told de Mistura that before negotiations the Syrian government must stop bombing civilian areas, release detainees and lift blockades imposed on opposition-held areas. 

The outlook for the talks has been further clouded by increased tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which back opposing sides in the conflict. Tensions have risen since Saudi Arabia executed Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. 

Muallem told de Mistura "Syria is ready to take part in the Geneva meetings at the proposed time, confirming the necessity of obtaining the list of terrorist organizations and the list of names of the Syrian opposition groups that will take part," state media reported. 

A statement from de Mistura's office described Jan. 9's meeting as useful and said the envoy had outlined preparations. 

"The Special Envoy is looking forward to the active participation of relevant parties in the Geneva talks.  He will be continuing his consultations in the region," it added. 

Opposition leaders are voicing misgivings over the new effort endorsed by the U.N. Security Council, not least because it does not address Assad's future, a point of contention between states on either side of the war. 

Syrian rebels said on Jan. 8 there was global pressure on the opposition to make concessions that would prolong the war, adding to their doubts about the U.N.-led drive. 

One opposition official said the negotiating team would not be named before the Syrian government did so. Monzer Mahkous, representative of the opposition in Paris, said it was not certain the talks would go ahead as planned due to numerous unresolved issues.