BEIRUT/GENEVA/PARIS Syrian peace talks were clouded by uncertainty on Wednesday as the Saudi-backed Syrian opposition demanded a response to its demands from the United Nations and a powerful Kurdish group said its exclusion meant the negotiations would fail.
The Syrian government has already agreed to join the talks that U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura hopes to convene in an indirect format in Geneva on Friday with the aim of ending the five-year-old war that has killed 250,000 people.
Preparations have been beset by difficulties, including a dispute over who should be invited to negotiate with President Bashar al-Assad's government as it claws back territory with help from Russia and Iran.
A Saudi-backed opposition council grouping armed and political opponents of Assad convened in Riyadh for a second day on Wednesday. But as night fell there was no sign of a decision about whether they would attend the talks.
While it has expressed support for a political solution and talks, the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) reiterated demands including a halt to attacks on civilian areas before any negotiations.
In a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, it also called for the lifting of sieges on blockaded areas among other steps outlined by the U.N. Security Council in a resolution passed last month.
The HNC is seeking clarification from de Mistura.
"We sent the questions. We are awaiting the response," said an opposition source, who confirmed the letter's authenticity.
Opposition officials have long insisted they cannot go to talks before the government shows goodwill through such moves.
Monzer Makhous, an HNC member, said: "I can't say if the discussions will be finished today or not. I have mixed feelings."
Another HNC member said de Mistura must clarify the aim of the talks. "There is a problem we would like to clarify with de Mistura. Is the main aim of these negotiations for them to be held or to succeed?" Riyadh Naasan Agha asked on Al Jazeera TV.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he had spoken to HNC coordinator Riad Hijab and understood the group would attend. "If I understand their position, they say yes to negotiations," Fabius told France Culture radio, but they wanted clarification on key issues first.
Diplomacy has so far failed to resolve the conflict that has forced millions from their homes, creating a refugee crisis in neighbouring states and Europe. With the war raging unabated, the latest effort has been overshadowed by increased tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
KURDS LEFT OUT
The Syrian government, aided by Russian air strikes and allied militia including Iranian forces, is gaining ground against rebels in western Syria, this week capturing the town of Sheikh Maskin near the Jordanian border.
Russian air strikes that began on Sept. 30 have tilted the war Assad's way after major setbacks earlier in 2015 brought rebels close to coastal areas that form the heartland of Assad's Alawite sect and are of great importance to the state he leads.
While the Saudi-backed HNC includes powerful rebel factions fighting Assad in western Syria, Russia has been demanding wider participation to include Syrian Kurds who control wide areas of northern and northeastern Syria.
The Syrian Kurdish PYD party, which is affiliated to the Kurdish YPG militia, was however excluded from the invite list in line with the wishes of Turkey, a major sponsor of the rebellion which views the PYD as a terrorist group.
Fabius said: "The PYD group was causing the most problems, and Mr de Mistura told me he had not sent them an invitation letter."
The PYD's representative in France, Khaled Eissa, who had been on a list of possible delegates proposed by Russia, blamed regional and international powers, in particular Turkey, for blocking the Kurds and forecast the talks would fail.
"You can't neglect a force that controls an area three times the size of Lebanon," he said. "We will not respect any decision taken without our participation."
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said the PYD could join the talks at a later stage.
Haytham Manna, a prominent opposition figure allied to the PYD and invited to the talks, told Reuters he would not attend if his allies were not there.
Manna is co-leader of an opposition group called the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), which includes the PYD and was formed in December in Kurdish-controlled Hasaka province. [nL8N15B1SZ]
Ilham Ahmed, a Kurdish politician who co-chairs the SDC, heaped criticism on de Mistura.
"We hold him responsible - not America or Russia - him and the United Nations. He was tasked with forming the delegations in a balanced way and in a way that represents all the elements of Syrian society," she told Reuters.
"When the whole of northern Syria is excluded from these negotiations, it means they are the ones dividing Syria. They are always accusing the Kurds of dividing Syria, but they are the ones dividing Syria."
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny and John Davison, John Irish, and Omar Fahmy in Cairo; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Giles Elgood and Peter Millership)
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Published Date: Jan 27, 2016 11:31 pm | Updated Date: Jan 27, 2016 11:31 pm