GENEVA — Senior diplomats from the United States, Russia, and the United Nations failed on Tuesday to agree on a date for convening a long-awaited peace conference aimed at settling the Syria conflict, acknowledging it would not take place this month and possibly not this year.
The diplomats adjourned after meetings in Geneva that could not resolve the most basic obstacles: which countries would attend such a conference, who would represent the fractious Syrian opposition, and what role — if any — would be played by President Bashar Assad of Syria, whose polarizing effects have proved among the most difficult issues to overcome.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy on Syria, told reporters: “We were hoping that we would be in a position to announce a date today. Unfortunately we are not.” He added, “We are still striving to see if we can have a conference before the end of the year.”
Brahimi, a seasoned UN troubleshooter who has been overseeing the effort to resolve the conflict since September 2012, said he would reconvene with Russian and US officials in Geneva on Nov. 25 for further efforts to hold a peace conference, which Russia and the United States first proposed six months ago.
The delay came against the backdrop of a leap in the number of Syrians uprooted by the war, with the UN reporting that more than 9 million — 40 percent of the population — have either fled the country or been internally displaced. Brahimi said that 6,000 Syrians a day are leaving for neighboring countries and that a new emergency donor conference will have to raise additional billions of dollars in the coming months for humanitarian relief. “This is not sustainable,” he said.
More than 110,000 Syrians have been killed since the conflict began in March 2011.
In the first round of preparatory talks for a peace conference here on Tuesday, Brahimi met with Wendy R. Sherman, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs, and two Russian deputy foreign ministers, Mikhail Bogdanov and Gennady Gatilov. The discussions widened later to include the other permanent UN Security Council members — Britain, China, and France. A third session included officials from Syria’s neighbors Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and a briefing from international relief agencies.
Brahimi made it clear that the lack of preparation on the part of Syria’s opposition was an acute and immediate cause for delaying a peace conference. “They are divided, that’s no secret for anyone, they are facing all sorts of problems,” he said.
The opposition National Coalition has no leverage over the armed groups battling Assad, particularly the jihadist militants linked to Al Qaeda who are among the most effective fighters. They have said that any insurgents who participate in Geneva peace talks would be regarded as traitors.
Brahimi also acknowledged that the diplomats had been unable to agree on whether Iran, Assad’s most important regional ally, would be invited to a peace conference. “Iran is definitely one of the issues that will be discussed further,” he said.
Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival and a major supporter of the Syrian insurgency, remains opposed to Iranian participation in peace talks. Western governments, recognizing Iran as an important participant, have appeared less resistant to Iran’s attendance. But diplomats say a major obstacle is Iran’s reluctance to endorse the communiqué of the first Geneva conference in June 2012, which called for a transition under a government formed by mutual consent.
The question of Assad’s role in a transition government looms as a major obstacle. In a meeting with Brahimi in Damascus last week, Assad said “only the Syrian people are authorized to shape the future of Syria,” a formula that rejects US insistence that he step down as part of any peace process. “We are not going to Geneva to hand over power,” Syria’s information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, said on Monday, according to Syria’s official SANA news agency. “President Bashar al-Assad will remain head of state.”
Syria’s agreement in September to US and Russian demands for the destruction of its chemical weapons arsenal has made it easier for Assad to defend that position, some Western diplomats have acknowledged. “It relies on there being a coherent Syrian government in place,” one diplomat said.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the group responsible for overseeing the destruction of those weapons, said Tuesday that its team in Syria had visited 21 of 23 sites and verified that equipment used to produce chemical weapons had been rendered inoperable, along with filling and mixing plants.
Sigrid Kaag, special coordinator for the organization’s joint mission with the UN, told reporters there that the verification efforts were on schedule, despite the war.
Increased confidence in Assad’s political durability has been reflected in a recent surge in the value of the Syrian pound.
In other war-related developments on Tuesday, the Vatican reported that a mortar shell struck the building that houses its embassy in Damascus, but there were no casualties.
In Turkey, the military said it had forcibly stopped a convoy of cars en route to Syria through an illicit border crossing and had confiscated materials, including sulfur, that are the ingredients for explosives.