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As talks approach, Assad’s grip strengthens

Even US needs Syrian leader to accomplish goals

A man evacuated a child after an airstrike in the Al-Maysar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, on Sunday.

Saad Abobrahim/REUTERS

A man evacuated a child after an airstrike in the Al-Maysar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, on Sunday.

WASHINGTON — While Syrian rebels are entering peace talks this week with renewed calls for a transitional government, US policy toward the country’s civil war has embraced the reality that has long been obvious: President Bashar Assad will remain in power, at least for a while.

The Obama administration has narrowed its policy to two main efforts: the eradication of Syria’s chemical weapons and the staging of a peace conference in Switzerland this week. Both need Assad’s cooperation to succeed.

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Although the official US line is that Assad ‘‘must go,’’ the focus on striking even short-term bargains with his regime is a recognition that he retains a strong political hold.

The United States insists Assad cannot use the upcoming peace talks to strengthen his hand, but that is just what many US-backed opponents of Assad fear will happen.

In Istanbul on Sunday, the leadership of Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, met to decide on its delegation for the peace talks set to open Friday at UN headquarters in Geneva, the Associated Press reported.

Foreign ministers from several nations will gather in Montreux on Wednesday as a prelude to Friday’s face-to-face talks between representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition.

The Syrian National Coalition decided late Saturday to take part in the peace talks, paving the way for the first direct negotiations between the rival sides. The conference aims to broker a political settlement to the conflict based on a road map adopted by the United States, Russia, and other major powers in June 2012.

That plan includes the creation of a transitional government with full executive powers, but Syrian government officials said again on Sunday that Assad will not hand over power and has the right to run for president later this year.

For months, moderate opponents resisted pressure to attend the talks, seeing them as a losing proposition that would undermine their small influence on the front-line rebels.

Assad has the upper hand militarily in the civil war. Despite extensive Iranian and some Russian military support, however, his forces have been unable to defeat a diverse rebel coalition that includes large numbers of Islamist militants.

The Assad government has turned that development partly in its favor by arguing that the Swiss talks will help Damascus fight terrorism.

On Sunday, the head of an Al Qaeda-linked group in Syria reached out to rival rebel groups who have been engaged in a bloody battle with his fighters, calling for the two sides to end their infighting and unite against the government and its allies.

In a 16-minute audio message posted online, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said the infighting benefits only the government.

The peace talks are beginning with low expectations. There is little chance that the nominal goal of a transitional government to replace Assad will emerge quickly, if ever.

A more realistic short-term measure of success would be temporary or localized cease-fires and freer access for humanitarian groups to needy people inside Syria.

The State Department has been quietly working toward those goals and pressuring Assad’s backers, notably Iran and Russia, to do the same. The most important goal of the conference, US, British and other officials said, is to get Assad and his opponents talking.

Syria on Friday proposed an exchange of prisoners with rebels and a cease-fire in the largest city, Aleppo, gestures that appeared designed to improve Assad’s poor image abroad ahead of the talks.

US and other officials said the Assad government appears ready to make further military and diplomatic concessions at what may be weeks of talks with opposition figures.

Secretary of State John Kerry will help open the UN peace conference Wednesday. He spent much of the past week imploring moderate political opponents of Assad to attend, although they have little pull with most of the rebels.

The United Nations has said the more than 30 nations attending the talks —Iran on Sunday became the latest to sign on — have accepted the goal of a transitional government, but Russia insists Assad’s exit is not automatic. Under ground rules approved in 2012, regime and opposition figures must jointly approve members of a temporary government that would oversee a ‘‘political transition’’ — to exactly what is left intentionally vague.

Although the Assad government has scoffed at the idea that it would negotiate its own demise, Kerry said Friday the idea is not so far-fetched. He likened the bargaining process to the chemical weapons deal struck with Syria last fall.

‘‘Nobody would have believed that Assad would have given up his chemical weapons. But he did. And the reason he did is that his patrons came to understand that he had to,’’ Kerry said.

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