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UN hopes for Syria peace conference slips away

Pedestrians walk by the United Nations headquarters building.

Pedestrians walk by the United Nations headquarters building. Photo Credit: AP, 2007

UNITED NATIONS -- The long-delayed peace conference that world leaders hope will end the 31-month civil war in Syria inched a bit more out of its planners' reach this week as Syrian opposition groups vowed not to attend unless President Bashar Assad steps down.

That revelation this week by as many as 19 groups fighting for the overthrow of Assad appeared to undermine the shuttle diplomacy of UN Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, who is organizing the conference planned for Geneva late this month, as he arrived in Damascus to discuss the gathering.

The controversy comes as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons reports that Syrian authorities have complied with their requests as the group scours the country to find and destroy Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons. The organization reported that Syria had "completed the functional destruction of critical equipment for all of its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing/filling plants, rendering them inoperable."

Syria's possession and possible use of chemical weapons in August exacerbated the civil war that UN officials say has taken more than 100,000 lives and complicated the planning of the peace conference.

The killing continues apace, however, as neither side has put down its arms. UN officials also report an ever-worsening humanitarian crisis with aid deliveries dwindling despite increased war casualties and lack of access to food, water and medicine.

"The difference between Geneva I and Geneva II is that in Geneva II, Syria will be represented by two delegations, the first representing the Syrian Government and the second representing the Syrian opposition," Brahimi said from Damascus on Friday, referring to a similar conference in 2012 that produced a framework for the second conference being planned now. "We look forward for Geneva II to represent a start leading to overcoming the crisis in Syria."

Martin Nesirky, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said Brahimi met with Assad on Wednesday, a day after meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem. Brahimi is scheduled to meet with representatives of opposition groups, women's groups and civil society during his trip and then with the United States and Russia.

But a date for the elusive conference has not been set, Nesirky and Brahimi said, though Nesirky said that it is still slated to take place in November.

"Dates are still under discussion," he said.

But both UN representatives acknowledged the fresh wrinkle in the planning of the conference, which was hampered this week amid reports that some of the opposition groups are boycotting the meeting.

"We announce that the Geneva II conference is not, nor will it ever be our people's choice or our revolution's demand," said the statement by Suqour al-Sham, one of the biggest groups in the country.

Further, the letter said, the opposition groups would consider anyone who participates in the conference as having committed treason.

Nesirky echoed assertions by UN Undersecretary-General Jeffrey Feltman that the conference was still being planned and would take place despite significant roadblocks.

"We simply said that for Geneva II to work there must be a Syrian government delegation," he said in New York. "There needs to be a united Syrian opposition delegation. Both parties should be coming to Geneva should that meeting be convened without preconditions. No one's saying this is an easy task."

Brahimi said he hopes the obstacles posed by tensions among the opposition groups can be overcome with more diplomacy.

"As for the opposition, the Coalition and other opposition parties are still discussing the way in which they will be represented in Geneva II," he said. "However, I believe most people want to attend, because everyone knows there is no other way to try to overcome the catastrophe in Syria which is threatening the entire region and other regions in the world."

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