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Syria opposition groups begin talks

BEIRUT - Syria’s deeply divided opposition began talks on Wednesday in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, aimed at forging a united front ahead of possible peace negotiations with the government of President Bashar Assad early next year.

The gathering represents the most ambitious effort yet to bring together Syria’s fractured opposition, and it spans the spectrum from moderate Assad foes to Salafist rebels who want to replace the regime with an Islamist government.

All attempts to unite the opposition have failed, and it is unclear whether this effort will succeed, given the vast differences among the factions. The Riyadh talks have gained new urgency, however, as the international community intensifies efforts to end the four-year-old conflict in the wake of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks and Russia’s ongoing intervention in Syria.

For the first time, rival world powers backing the various factions operating in Syria have rallied around the broad outlines of a diplomatic settlement, although many details have yet to be worked out - including the fate of Assad. Under a plan put forward by the 17-nation International Syria Support Group, including the United States, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia, at a meeting in Vienna last month, the Syrian government and the opposition are scheduled to hold talks early next year on ways to secure a cease-fire and establish a transitional government.

It is, therefore, vital that the opposition find common ground if it is to be represented at the talks, say opposition figures and Western diplomats.

Saudi Arabia is staking its influence over the outcome of the war on the opposition meeting, which is taking place at a Riyadh hotel amid tight security and away from media scrutiny. The meeting demonstrates that “the Syrian opposition is willing to engage in a political solution to the crisis,” Khaled Khoja, head of the Western-backed Syrian Opposition Coalition, said in a statement.

He also said that any solution to the war would have to include the withdrawal of the Russian troops and Iranian-backed militias that have been fighting in Syria on behalf of the government.

More than 100 delegates are attending the Riyadh meeting, including representatives of the Damascus-based National Coordination Commission, which is somewhat tolerated by the Assad regime, and the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham rebel movement. Its founders had ties to al-Qaida, and it is considered extreme by most international backers of the peace process. Despite the Western unease, there is broad recognition that any peace settlement would not succeed if armed rebel groups are excluded from the dialogue.

In a statement issued as the talks began, Ahrar al-Sham struck a cautionary note, complaining that some of the delegates “represent the regime more than the people.” But the group also acknowledged the need to participate in negotiations.

It said it would not support any outcome that did not include the removal of Assad and the complete dismantling of his security apparatus, a position widely shared by many in the opposition but at odds with a growing international consensus that Assad will remain as part of a transitional process.

World powers are still far apart, however, on the ultimate goal of any settlement. The United States and its allies say the process should culminate in Assad’s departure, while Russia and Iran have offered no indication that they are prepared to let their ally go. The International Syria Support Group is to gather Dec. 18 in New York, but whether the meeting will go ahead is unclear. On Wednesday, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, said it was “premature” to plan another meeting before details of past agreements have been implemented.

Meanwhile, in Syria, the United Nations oversaw the evacuation of hundreds of rebels and their families from Waer, the last pocket of rebel-held territory in the central city of Homs. The rebels are being escorted to opposition-held areas in northern Syria, leaving Homs, which was once an epicenter of the anti-Assad uprising, entirely in government hands for the first time in more than four years.

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