Syria: November date set for conference

Free Syrian Army fighters take a break in the safety of a cave. Picture: ReutersFree Syrian Army fighters take a break in the safety of a cave. Picture: Reuters
Free Syrian Army fighters take a break in the safety of a cave. Picture: Reuters
An international conference on a political solution to the Syrian conflict could take place 23-24 November, Syria’s deputy prime minister has said – the first mention of possible dates for the long-delayed gathering.

The United States and Russia have been trying to bring the Damascus government and Syria’s divided opposition to the negotiating table for months, but the meeting has been repeatedly delayed and it remains unclear whether either side is really willing to hold talks while the war is deadlocked.

The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, has not decided whether to attend, and many rebel fighters inside Syria flatly reject negotiating with president Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The government, meanwhile, has refused to talk with the armed opposition.

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Speaking to reporters in Moscow, Syria’s deputy prime minister Qadri Jamil was quoted by Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency as saying “the conference will be held on 23 and 24 of November.”

But within hours of his statement, Russia’s foreign ministry spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, told reporters: “We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves.”

“It is not a matter for Syrian officials but the responsibility of the UN secretary-general to announce and set dates agreed with all sides,” he added.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said on Wednesday that efforts are intensifying to try to hold the Geneva meeting in mid-November. He did not provide concrete dates, and it’s not clear whether the schedule provided by Mr Jamil has been agreed to by any other parties.

The renewed effort to organise the Geneva talks stems from the UN resolution passed last month to rid Syria of its chemical weapons programme. The resolution also endorsed a framework for a political transition that key countries adopted last year and it called for an international conference in Geneva to be convened “as soon as possible” to implement it.

Syria’s revolt began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests against the Assad regime before eventually turning into a civil war. The conflict has killed more than 100,000 people, and forced more than two million to flee the country.

Syria’s largest city and former commercial capital, Aleppo, has been engulfed in fighting since rebels launched an offensive on the city in mid-2012. The battle has exacted a terrific toll, killing thousands and laying waste to a city once considered one of the country’s most beautiful.

The fighting has been relentless since the initial rebel assault, and yesterday activists reported heavy clashes around Aleppo’s central prison. Rebels have besieged the facility for nearly six months in an effort to free more than 4,000 detainees believed to be held inside.

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More than 150 prisoners have died during the siege, either from the shelling or from lack of medicine, or they were killed outright by the guards, opposition groups say.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebel fighters from the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and another Islamist group known as Ahrar al-Sham tried to storm the prison late on Wednesday.

The siege is emblematic of the bloody, cruel war of attrition into which Syria’s conflict has descended, now in its third year. In the north, including Aleppo province, rebels have succeeded in seizing large areas of the countryside.

President Assad’s troops, meanwhile, have been able to hold onto bases and other strongpoints around the area.