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Syria talks under way, Damascus insists Assad will stay

Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met U.S. and Russian officials on Tuesday to discuss convening long-delayed Syrian peace talks this year despite disputes over President Bashar al-Assad's future and whether his ally Iran can attend.

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

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

After their closed-door talks, they were to be joined by officials from the other three U.N. Security Council permanent members Britain, France and China, as well as Syria's neighbors Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and the Arab League.

A U.N. source said that even if a conference date could not be announced immediately, the aim was to "at least see that all the parties and groups are ready for a date".

This is by no means certain, given gaping international divisions 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 remain and...Assad will be president of this country all the time they are dreaming that he isn't," the Syrian state news agency quoted Information Minister Omran Zoabi as saying on Monday night.

International efforts to end the conflict in Syria, which has killed well over 100,000 people, driven millions from their homes and further destabilized the region, have floundered.

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

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

The proposed peace conference is meant to build on a June 2012 agreement among world powers in Geneva that called for a transitional authority with full executive powers, but left open whether 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 his coalition would not attend if Tehran took part.

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


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

However, he indicated that Iran and other outside players need only be represented at the outset of the conference proposed by the United States and Russia.

"At subsequent stages the Syrians - as conceived by the Russian-American duet and supported by everyone else - will talk to each other directly with mediation by...Brahimi and his team," Lavrov said.

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

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

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

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

"The Saudi position is complicating things, they are not too excited 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. commitment to removing Assad, especially since Obama dropped a threat of air strikes after a poison gas attack near Damascus in August.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal criticized Iran on 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 goes ahead or not. We will not go to Geneva in order to hand over power, as al-Faisal and some of the opposition abroad hope."

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

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

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

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