Syria, opposition agree 'in principle' to attend peace conference

Story highlights

  • Syrian government, rebels agree to idea of peace conference in Geneva
  • Previous efforts to get two sides together have not been fruitful
  • Opposition has said President Bashar al-Assad must step down
  • International group's peace plan has been on table since last year

Both the Syrian government and the opposition Syrian National Coalition indicated Sunday they are interested in a peace conference next month in Geneva, Switzerland, though both sides tempered any optimism about the summit with caveats.

"We have in principle agreed to participate in Geneva, pending hearing more clarity about the purpose and the intentions of the Syrian regime -- the Assad regime. So far, the signals have been not positive," coalition spokesman Louay Safi said from Istanbul, where opposition leaders have been meeting to discuss the pending summit and to determine new leadership for the coalition.

"The Assad regime has to make it clear that they are there to engage in talks about transition to democracy, and as part of Geneva, understanding that would mean that all the powers that resides today with Bashar al-Assad will be given to the transitional government. Until this point, this is not clear," he said.

Abdul Basit Seida, a senior member of the group meeting in Istanbul, said in a statement Sunday: "Talks are still ongoing with no final resolution. There is also no final decision yet on attending the conference in Geneva."

The Syrian government has tentatively agreed to the June peace conference, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said earlier Sunday.

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Speaking at a joint news conference in Baghdad with his Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari, he said, "I informed the Iraqi prime minister of Syria's decision that the government agreed in principle to send an official delegation to the Geneva peace conference that will take place in June."

Al-Moallem added: "From the beginning of the crisis, I assured that Syria believes that dialogue among the Syrians is the only solution to Syria and that no one can make a decision on behalf of the Syria people when it comes to the future of their country."

It has proved difficult to get the two sides in the civil war together.

In December, Russia -- which backs the Syrian government -- invited then-opposition leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib to talks in Moscow, but he refused to meet in a Russian venue.

Al-Khatib said Russia had overlooked atrocities in Syria and must condemn the crimes before his group could engage in talks.

But he did meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in February during a break in an international security conference in Munich, Germany.

Last summer representatives from world powers that had been at odds over the Syrian conflict drew up a peace plan that called for a cease-fire, a transitional government and a new constitution, though it did not specify whether al-Assad would have to step down.

Russia and China joined France, Britain, the United States and Turkey, as well as Arab League nations, in agreeing on the plan.

But neither the Syrian government nor the rebels had shown a willingness to sign on to the plan.

The new discussions come as concerns have increased that sectarian strife in Syria may trigger ethnic conflict within Lebanon's borders. On Saturday, the militant group Hezbollah declared it is going to war in Syria on behalf of al-Assad's government.

Four rockets struck Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon on Sunday, Lebanon's state news agency reported. Two of them pounded a residential area in the northern city of al-Hermel, a Shiite neighborhood.

Syrian rebels have shelled al-Hermel in the past, saying they are responding to military support of the Syrian government by Hezbollah, which is a Shiite militia.

Safi criticized Hezbollah's actions.

"What Hezbollah and its leader is doing is that they are dragging Lebanon into the Syrian conflict," he said.

The ongoing violence is deadly far from the Lebanon border as well. The Local Coordination Committees in Syria -- an alliance of rebel groups -- said 98 people were killed across Syria on Sunday. CNN is unable to confirm the numbers due to restrictions placed on journalists by the Assad regime.

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The United Nations estimates that more than 70,000 Syrians have been killed since anti-government protests in March 2011 led to a fierce government crackdown, an armed uprising and a bloody civil war.

The war has uprooted a quarter of the country's 22 million civilians. And the number of Syrians who have fled the violence has surpassed 1.5 million, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees recently said.

Since the start of 2013 alone, the UNHCR has registered close to 1 million refugees crossing out of the battered nation into other countries, which amounts to about 250,000 people each month.