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US presses Syrian opposition to attend peace talks

Rebels worried by prospect of fruitless talks

Soldiers loyal to Syria’s president walked through Naqaren Tuesday after claiming to have regained control of the town.

George Ourfalian/Reuters

Soldiers loyal to Syria’s president walked through Naqaren Tuesday after claiming to have regained control of the town.

PARIS — Secretary of State John Kerry told the Syrian opposition that support for the group could be reduced if it decides not to attend the upcoming peace conference in Switzerland, Western officials said Tuesday.

Kerry and a team of senior US officials met Monday with Ahmad Assi al-Jarba, the president of the Syrian opposition coalition that the West is backing, and other opposition officials.

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That rebel coalition has been concerned that its influence within Syria, which is already limited, would be undermined further if it participated in a drawn-out peace conference that did not lead to any results.

The United States has sought to assuage the opposition’s concerns by emphasizing that a number of “confidence building” measures might be instituted before the meeting, such as opening humanitarian aid corridors to besieged areas and establishing local cease-fires that might preclude the Syrian government’s bombardment of the northern city of Aleppo.

Kerry has also hinted that the Obama administration might move soon to restore the flow to the opposition coalition of nonlethal assistance that was recently cut off because of concerns that some of it had been captured in Syria by an Islamist group.

The opposition coalition plans to decide later this week whether to attend the peace conference, which is scheduled to begin in Switzerland on Jan. 22.

The goal of the conference in the American view is to establish arrangements for a transitional administration that would govern Syria if President Bashar Assad could be persuaded to yield power.

One worry of the opposition is that no deadline has been
established for achieving results.

Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said Kerry had delivered a message about the stakes involved but did not state directly that the United States had already decided to cut off aid if the opposition did not attend.

“Secretary Kerry made clear privately, as he has many times publicly, that there are high stakes at play for the SOC and that the international community strongly believes that it is in their interests and the interests of the Syrian people for them to send a representative delegation to the conference,” Psaki said, using the abbreviation for the Syrian opposition coalition. “He did not indicate that the United States was planning to cut off assistance.”

Kerry was flying to Rome on Tuesday for meetings at the Vatican before heading to Kuwait for a meeting Wednesday of donors who are providing humanitarian assistance to Syria.

Kerry’s argument to the opposition is that they could lose aid and that the Assad government would benefit if it did not attend. But a decision on specifically what aid might be cut does not appear to have been made.

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