Syria talks under way, Damascus insists Assad will stay

Reuters

* Brahimi discusses peace talks with U.S., Russian envoys

* Russia says Iran must be invited to "Geneva 2" conference

* Syria says no way will Assad hand over power

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA, Nov 5 (Reuters) - Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met U.S. andRussian officials on Tuesday to discuss convening long-delayedSyrian peace talks this year despite disputes over PresidentBashar al-Assad's future and whether his ally Iran can attend.

Hours earlier, Damascus reiterated that Assad will stay inpower come what may, casting doubt on the political transitionthat is the main focus of the proposed "Geneva 2" conference.

Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, conferredwith U.S. Under Secretary Wendy Sherman, U.S. ambassador toSyria Robert Ford and Russian deputy foreign ministers MikhailBogdanov and Gennady Gatilov at the United Nations in Geneva.

After their closed-door talks, they were to be joined byofficials from the other three U.N. Security Council permanentmembers Britain, France and China, as well as Syria's neighboursIraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and the Arab League.

A U.N. source said that even if a conference date could notbe announced immediately, the aim was to "at least see that allthe parties and groups are ready for a date".

This is by no means certain, given gaping internationaldivisions over Syria and the disarray among Assad's opponents.

The Syrian leader himself appears in no mood for compromise.

"Syria - the state, the nation and the people - will remainand...Assad will be president of this country all the time theyare dreaming that he isn't," the Syrian state news agency quotedInformation Minister Omran Zoabi as saying on Monday night.

International efforts to end the conflict in Syria, whichhas killed well over 100,000 people, driven millions from theirhomes and further destabilised the region, have floundered.

"One thing is certain, there is no military solution for theconflict in Syria," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said inWarsaw on Tuesday, asserting again that Assad must go.

"I don't know how anybody believes the opposition is goingto give mutual consent to Assad to continue," he said.

The proposed peace conference is meant to build on a June2012 agreement among world powers in Geneva that called for atransitional authority with full executive powers, but left openwhether the Syrian president could play any part.

Russia said Iran must be invited to any such peace talks,after the main Syrian political opposition leader said hiscoalition would not attend if Tehran took part.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also rejected Syrian NationalCoalition chief Ahmad Jarba's demand for a time-frame for Assadto quit, ruling out any such preconditions for "Geneva 2".

ARAB LEAGUE APPROVAL

"All those with influence on the situation must certainly beinvited," Lavrov told a news conference. "This includes not onlyArab countries but also Iran."

However, he indicated that Iran and other outside playersneed only be represented at the outset of the conferenceproposed by the United States and Russia.

"At subsequent stages the Syrians - as conceived by theRussian-American duet and supported by everyone else - will talkto each other directly with mediation by...Brahimi and histeam," Lavrov said.

Saudi Arabia and the United States oppose any invitation forIran, which along with Russia, is a firm ally of Assad.

The Arab League gave its blessing on Sunday to the proposedpeace talks and urged the opposition to form a delegation underthe leadership of Jarba's coalition.

But even with Arab diplomatic cover, it is unclear whetherthe opposition, which has scant influence with rebels fightingin Syria, some of them linked to al Qaeda, will attend.

"The Qataris have been trying to hammer out a unitedposition between the opposition, but I don't think they willsucceed," said an Arab diplomat in Geneva.

"The Saudi position is complicating things, they are not tooexcited about Geneva 2 any more after they made that big stink,"he said, alluding to a Saudi refusal of a Security Council seat.

Riyadh is angry over what it sees as a weak U.S. commitmentto removing Assad, especially since Obama dropped a threat ofair strikes after a poison gas attack near Damascus in August.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal criticised Iranon Monday, saying it was helping Assad strike his own people.

In response, Zoabi, the Syrian information minister, said:"We promise that Saudi diplomacy will fail, whether Geneva goesahead or not. We will not go to Geneva in order to hand overpower, as al-Faisal and some of the opposition abroad hope."

"If that was the case we would have handed it over inDamascus and saved the effort and price of the airline ticket,"he said.

In Geneva, the U.N. source said any date for the conferencewould be formally set by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon,probably after the Syrian opposition meets on Nov. 9.

"Mr. Brahimi would like to see the conference this year, hedoesn't want to see it postponed," the source said.

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