Syria peace talks plans in jeopardy after opposition, Saudi moves

Reuters

* Syrian opposition to shun peace talks unless Assad exit isgoal

* Confident Assad talks of running for re-election next year

* Saudi Arabia plans to halt cooperation with United Stateson Syria - source

By Arshad Mohammed and Peter Griffiths

LONDON, Oct 22 (Reuters) - Plans for talks to end thefighting in Syria were in jeopardy on Tuesday after theopposition refused to attend unless President Bashar al-Assad isforced from power and a furious Saudi Arabia made clear it wouldno longer co-operate with the United States over the civil war.

Western nations and their Middle Eastern allies pressedSyria's fractured opposition to join the proposed peace talks,although Assad has indicated he will not bow to oppositiondemands that he should step down as a pre-condition.

The United States and Russia said in May they would convenea "Geneva 2" conference to try to end a conflict that has killedwell over 100,000 people and forced millions from their homes,but it faces huge obstacles and no firm date has been set.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, hosting a meetingof 11 nations in London, said it was vital that theWestern-backed Syrian opposition join the talks.

"We urge the National Coalition to commit itself fully andto lead and form the heart of any opposition delegation toGeneva," he told a news conference.

However, opposition factions are loathe to discuss anythingexcept the immediate departure of Assad - who said on Monday hesaw no reason why he should not run for re-election next year.

"The Sultan must leave," said Syrian opposition chief AhmedJarba in the text of a speech to the meeting, referring toAssad. "Geneva cannot succeed and we cannot take part if itallows Assad to gain more time to spill the blood of our peoplewhile the world looks on."

OPPOSITION RIFTS

Many of the mostly Islamist rebels fighting in Syria refuseto recognise the exiled opposition favoured by the West.

Efforts to present a united front suffered a further setbackwhen it emerged that Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief had saidthe kingdom would make a "major shift" in relations with theUnited States in protest at its perceived inaction over Syriaand its overtures to Iran.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan has told European diplomats thatWashington had failed to act on Syria among other Middle Easternissues, according to a source close to Saudi policy. "The shiftaway from the U.S. is a major one," the source said.

There would be no further coordination with the UnitedStates over the war in Syria, where the Saudis have armed andfinanced rebel groups fighting Assad, the source said.

Saudi anger boiled over after Washington refrained frommilitary strikes in response to a poison gas attack in Damascusin August when Assad agreed to give up his chemical arsenal.

Saudi Arabia is also concerned about signs of a tentativereconciliation between Washington and Tehran, the Saudis' oldenemy, which may be invited to Geneva.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the Saudis were"obviously disappointed" that the strike on Syria did not takeplace.

He said President Barack Obama had asked to him to hold talkto Saudi officials, which he described as "very, veryconstructive and I am convinced we are on the same page as weare proceeding forward."

Saudi Arabia and the United States shared deep concern aboutIran's nuclear programme, Kerry said, adding: "I reaffirmedPresident Obama's commitment that he will not allow Iran to havea nuclear weapon."

Kerry met Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal in Paris onMonday regarding Iran.

"I reiterated our position - in any negotiation (with Iran)--that our eyes are wide open, actions are what will speak tous, not words, and no deal is better than a bad deal," Kerrysaid.

NO MILITARY SOLUTION

Hague said there was no military solution to the war andurged Syrians to "make the compromises necessary for a peaceprocess to work".

Several officials, including Arab League chief NabilElaraby, have said they expect the Geneva 2 conference toconvene on Nov. 23, though the United States, Russia and theUnited Nations have all said no date has been officially set.

In London, Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan,Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and theUnited States were to discuss the agenda for the peace talks andto help the opposition prepare for them, a U.S. official said.

While Washington has said it is open to the possibility ofIran, which has supported Assad, coming to a Geneva conference,Kerry said it was hard to see Tehran playing a constructive roleunless it backs the idea of a transitional government.

Hague said Iran must support a proposed interim governmentin Syria including figures from Assad's administration and theopposition as the way to political dialogue and free elections.

"If Iran could start from that position as well as the restof us, then Iran would be more easily included in internationaldiscussions on the subject," he said.

However, the West and its Arab allies are divided on Iranianinvolvement. Saudi Arabia, which backs Syria's mostly SunniMuslim rebels, vehemently opposes any inclusion of Shi'ite Iran,its regional arch-rival.

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