BEIRUT — A long-planned Syrian peace conference is scheduled to take place in January, the United Nations said Monday, potentially bringing the government of President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents to the negotiating table for the first time since the conflict began in 2011.
The United States, Russia and the United Nations have been trying to organize the talks — now set for Jan. 22 in Geneva — for months. But the process was hampered by wrangling over sticking points, including whether Assad would have a role in a post-civil-war Syria.
“We are well aware that the obstacles on the road to a political solution are many, and we will enter the Geneva conference on Syria with our eyes wide open,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in a statement that welcomed the scheduling of the talks.
“This horrific conflict began as a peaceful protest by Syrians who aspire to live in a country where freedom, dignity, and equal treatment under the law are protected,” Kerry said. “Now, in order to end the bloodshed and give the Syrian people a chance to meet their long-deferred aspirations, Syria needs new leadership.”
More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict. At least 2 million Syrians have fled to neighboring Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and elsewhere.
The war has increasingly polarized the Middle East, as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided support for the rebels and Iran and the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah have aided Assad.
“The conflict in Syria has raged for too long,” the United Nations said in a statement. “It would be unforgivable not to seize this opportunity to bring an end to the suffering and destruction it has caused.”
The goal of the conference is to implement the 2012 Geneva Communique, which called for establishing a transitional governing body in Syria. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expects that representatives to the conference will come “with a clear understanding that this is the objective,” the statement said.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition, an umbrella group of rebel factions, has agreed to attend the conference if its demands are met — including that Assad play no role in a transitional government.
However, the Syrian government, which has said it will attend the talks “in principle,” has repeatedly said that it will not go to Geneva with the intention of handing over power. In interviews, Assad has said it is up to the Syrian people to decide his fate, hinting that he will run for reelection next year. He has also said that the government will not negotiate with “terrorists,” a term it uses to describe the rebels.
In letters that the Syrian Foreign Ministry sent to Ban and to the U.N. Security Council, Assad’s government said “combatting the terrorism which targets Syrian citizens is essential to any peaceful solution for the crisis in Syria and for adding credibility to the political process in the eyes of the Syrian people,” the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition has little if any influence over many of the rebel groups involved in the fighting. In recent months, Islamist factions among the rebels have been consolidating, while rejecting the authority of the opposition coalition.
The coalition has demanded improved access for humanitarian groups in Syria and the release of political prisoners ahead of the peace talks. In his statement, Kerry echoed the call for increased opportunities to help ordinary Syrians.
“The thousands of men, women, and children suffering in Syria today cannot wait for us to meet in Geneva for their cries to be heard.” the chief U.S. diplomat said. “The Assad regime must stop using starvation as a weapon of war and immediately begin providing greater humanitarian access to besieged communities.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the announcement of the talks puts the Syrian government “in the spotlight.”
“They need to take immediate steps to alleviate humanitarian suffering across the country, and stop their brutal tactics, which include besieging and attacking civilian areas,” Hague said in a statement.