Paris and London, Asharq Al-Awsat—With preparations for the Geneva II peace conference underway, France is seeking to secure wider participation in order to increase the chances of a political solution to the Syrian crisis, Asharq Al-Awsat has learnt.
A French diplomatic source, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, said that Paris is seeking to secure Gulf-Arab participation at the Geneva II conference that is scheduled to take place in mid-November, in addition to the involvement of all 11 members of the Friends of Syria donor group.
This comes after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov welcomed the participation of moderate Syrian opposition rebels in the conference during a press conference on Tuesday.
“I do not rule out that the armed opposition, if it does not stand for extremism or terrorism views, could very well be represented,” Lavrov told reporters, adding, “By the way, this is something that President Assad has said as well.”
The French diplomatic source said that this “initial” period leading up to the Geneva II conference requires “meticulous preparation,” adding that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, will be responsible for steering the dialogue at the Geneva II conference.
Western sources had earlier informed Asharq Al-Awsat that Tehran may participate in the peace conference on the Syrian civil war after Iran had “returned to the international political arena” thanks to new president Hassan Rouhani’s moderate discourse.
For his part, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Tehran should be invited to the Geneva II conference on Syria, and is “prepared to participate” in the conference, but only if asked.
“We are not begging to be invited,” he told Al-Monitor earlier this week, adding, “If they ask us to go, we will go, without any conditions, and we do not accept any conditions.”
As for the Arab states participating, Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi had earlier confirmed that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby, will be invited. In an interview with Al-Arabiya TV, Brahimi added that other Arab states will also be invited, and that it would be beneficial if Tehran also attend.
However he added that with all the uncertainty regarding who should attend, the conference target date of mid-November was “not 100 percent”, particularly citing disunity among the Syrian rebel forces.
The French diplomatic source, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, said that Geneva II continues to face a number of “obstacles,” adding that these can be overcome through “collaborative efforts.”
Lavrov said that Moscow had expected the Western and Arab governments to ensure that representatives of the armed opposition agree to attend Geneva II despite the growing divisions in their ranks; however he questioned whether they could achieve this by November.
“Until recently, we expected our Western partners, who committed themselves to bring the opposition to the conference, that they would be able to do this fairly quickly,” Lavrov told reporters.
“But they did not manage to do it quickly. I do not know if they will manage to do it by the middle of November,” he added.
He called on the Geneva II conference to be organized as soon as possible since “radicals and jihadists are strengthening their positions” in Syria.
“The task is to not lose any more time, and to bring to the negotiating table with the government those opposition groups that…think not about creating a caliphate in Syria or just seizing power and using it at their will, but about the fate of their country,” he added.
For its part, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) has said that it will only participate in the conference if there is a guarantee regarding the formation of an interim government.
Munzer Mahos, who serves as the SNC’s foreign relations coordinator in Europe, told the Interfax news agency: “SNC chairman Ahmed Jarba said in New York that the coalition would be ready to take part in the Geneva 2 conference on the condition that leading Arab states that are most actively involved in the settlement of the Syrian conflict, will guarantee that the conference will abide by the Geneva-1 accords to form an interim government with a set of powers, including presidential, that will exercise complete control over the armed forces and security services.”