The United Nations envoy to Syria said Friday there would be no preconditions for long-delayed peace talks, an assertion likely to anger an opposition movement that says it will only attend if the goal is to remove President Bashar al-Assad.
Lakhdar Brahimi said in Beirut he hoped the conference — known as Geneva 2 — could still be held in the next few weeks despite obstacles that have held it up for months.
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The talks are meant to bring Syria's warring sides to the negotiating table, but have been repeatedly delayed because of disputes between world powers, divisions among the opposition and the irreconcilable positions of Assad and the rebels.
Brahimi has previously said he thought Assad would not be part of the transitional government that Geneva 2 would attempt to install. But on Friday he said his opinions on the matter had no bearing on parameters for the conference.
"My opinion isn't important. There is an agreement that attendance at Geneva 2 will not be based on any preconditions from any side," he told a news conference in Beirut.
"The two sides when they sit down at the table … will discuss how we can move from this choking, murderous crisis that the Syrian people are facing, how we can transition from this situation into building a new Syrian republic."
Arab and Western officials said this week that international powers were unlikely to meet their goal of holding the conference in November.
Neither side has softened its position despite international pressure to hold talks, seen by some rebels as a betrayal of the aims of the 2½-year revolt to end four decades of Assad family rule.
The United States — which largely supports the opposition — and Assad's long-time arms supplier Russia have been trying to reach a deal to hold Geneva 2 to halt a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people.
Britain, China, France come later
Brahimi spoke in Damascus earlier in the day, after a regional trip of shuttle diplomacy to shore up support for the talks, and said he would travel to Geneva to meet U.S. and Russian representatives.
Representatives from the other three permanent UN Security Council members — Britain, China and France — would later join them to prepare for the conference and set a date.
Asked when the conference might be held, he said: "We hope it will be in the coming weeks, not next year or after that."
Syria and its main regional backer, Iran, have said there should be no preconditions. Yet Assad's government also voiced discontent with Brahimi after his visit.
Syria criticizes Brahimi
Information Minister Amran Zoabi, in an interview aired on Al Mayadeen TV after Brahimi spoke in Damascus, accused him of using "more than one language … to please everyone at the expense of the truth".
He also criticized Brahimi for focusing on humanitarian issues "outside his purview" and for inviting to the peace talks countries that "directly support the hostility against Syria," such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Syrian opposition figure Melhem Droubi, a member of opposition group the Syrian National Council and the Muslim Brotherhood, said he was not surprised by Brahimi's comments about no preconditions.
"I'm not surprised or interested in these types of comments from Brahimi … Our branch, the Council, already met and decided we will not attend Geneva," he told Reuters by telephone.
He said the oppositions umbrella group abroad, the National Coalition, was still undecided, "but the mood is generally against going now."
Prefers that Iran attend
There is still discord among world powers over whether Assad's ally Iran should be invited to the talks. Tehran says it is ready to come.
Brahimi said the United Nations preferred that Iran attend, but there had been no agreement on this yet. He also said he hoped just one delegation would represent the opposition.
Internal parties that Assad calls the "patriotic opposition," but which the rebel movement consider a government ploy, have been lobbying to attend as part of the opposition.
The opposition is also struggling to contend with its own divisions that already threaten a unified stance.
Many powerful rebel groups reject the coalition's authority and say they will try anyone who attends Geneva 2 as a traitor.