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Syria peace conference delayed as casualties mount

A rebel fighter fires a gun in a

A rebel fighter fires a gun in a valley in an unidentified location in Latakia province, Syria. Rebel military chief Gen. Salim Idris, the military commander of Syria's main Western-backed opposition group, visited rebels in the coastal province that is President Bashar Assad's ancestral homeland following recent opposition advances in the area, a spokeswoman said. (Aug. 11, 2013) Credit: AP

UNITED NATIONS - An international conference that the United States, Russia and United Nations planned with hopes to end the bloodshed in Syria has been postponed several times for logistical, political and religious reasons since it was first proposed for June, according to UN officials and reports -- and it still doesn't have a date.

The so-called Geneva II, which was a follow-up conference to one that took place in June 2012, has been tough for UN and Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi to organize despite its urgency.

"It is unlikely to happen in September because there are different events, including the 'ministerial week' at the UN General Assembly," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said last week, according to media reports. "We are for it happening as soon as possible, but we need to be realistic about circumstances which could affect the forum."

Those circumstances have dire consequences.

By UN estimates, as many as 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict that began in March 2011, a byproduct of the Syrian government's crackdown on Arab Spring demonstrators.

The conference may not happen now until at least October, even as casualties mount.

A London-based human rights group, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, documents the deaths of dozens of people daily, adding that many victims are children or other noncombatants who were tortured to death.

On Sunday for example, the organization said that there were 87 deaths across Syria, 14 of them children and 10 women, with 12 of the victims having been tortured to death. There were 90 killings on Saturday, the group said, and 97 on Friday.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have both said the conference is Syria's last and best hope for a peaceful resolution to the civil war. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said at New York headquarters on Monday that he was glad to see that a team of chemical weapons experts had arrived in Damascus to inspect three sites where both the Syrian government and two other UN member states have said chemical weapons had been used.

Ban's spokesman, Eduardo del Buey, said last week that Brahimi is working furiously to get the conference going as quickly as possible.

But the delays have been blamed on several issues, one of the biggest a political spat over who should be at the table.

The United States backs the Syrian opposition, a collection of groups that have only recently united under the banner of the Syrian National Coalition and one leader, Ahmad al-Jarba, who at a meeting in New York late last month reportedly asked Kerry to send arms to his fighters, according to NBC News.

UN officials and analysts have said that the fact that the opposition groups took so long to coalesce into a single voice was a major setback in planning the conference.

On the other side of the negotiation table, the United States and the countries that oppose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are reluctant to allow Iran a role in the talks. Iran is an ardent backer of the Assad government, and has sent fighters and supplies to the conflict.

The month-long Islamic celebration of Ramadan, which lasted from early July to early August, also contributed to the delay.

Now, the upcoming UN General Assembly, which is scheduled to begin in late September and draw heads of state and government, is floated as another reason to postpone it.

One analyst who follows the work of the United Nations said the reasons proffered for the delay are bogus as people in Syria grow more desperate by the day. "That's all nonsense," said Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, where she is director of the New Internationalism project.

"When there is political will, Ramadan takes a backseat and the General Assembly is relegated to its backseat," she said. "This is about a lack of political will."

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