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Iran, Saudi Arabia to attend Syria peace conference – diplomats

Published time: December 12, 2013 17:18
Rebel fighters hold their weapons as they stand amidst snow during clashes with Syrian pro-government forces in the Salaheddin neighbourhood of Syria's northern city of Aleppo on December 11, 2013.(AFP Photo / Medo Halab)

Rebel fighters hold their weapons as they stand amidst snow during clashes with Syrian pro-government forces in the Salaheddin neighbourhood of Syria's northern city of Aleppo on December 11, 2013.(AFP Photo / Medo Halab)

Iran and Saudi Arabia will be among the 32 countries to attend the Geneva II peace talks on Syria, slated to take place next month in Switzerland, diplomats told AFP.

The UN-backed Syria peace conference, a follow up to a July 2012 action group meeting, is determined to bring together the opposing sides in the Syrian Civil war to map out a peaceful political transition in the nearly three-year conflict which has killed more than 120,000 and displaced millions.

At the moment there are 32 countries invited, but that number may increase because everyone wants to come," an Arab diplomat told AFP.

"In addition to the five permanent members of the Security Council [the US, UK, France, Russia and China], there are the neighboring countries, as well as Saudi Arabia and Iran, and also Germany and Italy and others."

Shiite Iran has reportedly provided political and material support to government forces fighting for Syrian President Bashar Assad. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has been an ardent supporter of Sunni backed rebels fighting in the country.

Most countries will be represented by their top diplomats and "each minister can speak for five minutes," the Arab diplomat said.

Many of the ministers will then attend the overlapping World Economic Forum in Davos, which runs from January 22 to 25.

Both the Assad government and some factions of the Syrian opposition will send delegations and hold bilateral talks hosted by UN-Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, on January 22 in Geneva.

UN and Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi.(AFP Photo / Fabrice Coffrini)

"Each delegation will be composed of nine members and both the regime and the opposition should present their lists to the UN by December 27, but it is not certain they will respect this date," the Arab diplomat said.

Even drafting the list of delegates for the opposition – which ranges from pro-democratic secular moderates to Wahhabi radicals – is a difficult task, with many rebel groups rejecting the peace effort outright.

The United States had previously shown staunch opposition to Iran’s inclusion in the talks, while Russia pushed for including Tehran into the process. A recently concluded nuclear deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany has likely facilitated Iran’s participation in the talks.

On Thursday, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called on the UN’s chief Ban Ki-Moon “to put in maximum effort for the peace talks to take place on the announced date.

"The main goal on Syria now is to make sure that the entire political spectrum of Syrian society be present at the Geneva II conference," Lavrov also said.

We have done our job of ensuring the Syrian government's presence," he added. "We believe the opposition should recall its courage and primarily address the interests of all Syrian people. It should give up its ambitions. It's not the right time now to distribute portfolios, not to mention threaten to leave the Syrian opposition's National Coalition."

A tense atmosphere is expected to dominate Geneva II, with a European diplomat at the United Nations saying “UN officials would meet with the delegates ahead of the conference to explain the ‘rules of the game’".

"At this point, I don't even know for sure if the conference will take place because there are still so many unknowns," he told the agency.

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