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Syria: Assad set to strengthen grip on country ahead of peace talks - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad run during clashes with Free Syrian Army fighters in the Alleramoun labs area of Aleppo December 29, 2013 (REUTERS/George Ourfalian).

Forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad run during clashes with Free Syrian Army fighters in the Alleramoun labs area of Aleppo December 29, 2013 (REUTERS/George Ourfalian).

Paris, Asharq Al-Awsat—Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is seeking to retake control of as much territory as possible ahead of peace talks due to open in early 2014, as the Western-backed opposition still has not unified its stance over taking part in the talks, Asharq Al-Awsat has learned.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on condition of anonymity, a member of the Syrian National Coalition—the most prominent opposition umbrella group—claimed Assad had informed Russia, the Syrian government’s main backer, of his aims to wrest control of around 80 percent of the war-torn country in a bid to build up political momentum ahead of the expected peace talks.

The highly informed opposition source said that the Coalition had recently come under strong pressure from the United States to sit at the negotiating table with the Syrian government.

The source also spoke of “deep divides” within the Western-backed Coalition, with some of its members “wanting to go to Geneva talks at any cost” and others categorically rejecting any negotiations in which the “opposition will be the biggest losers.”

The source attributed the uncertainty clouding the Coalition’s position on the talks to three main reasons: the bitter divisions within the Syrian opposition, lack of coordination between the Istanbul-based political body and the fighters on the ground, and uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the talks.

The Under Secretary for Political Affairs at the US State Department, Wendy Sherman, has encouraged the Coalition to attend the talks and “seize the opportunity to highlight your positions.”

Addressing the Coalition’s delegation to the talks, Sherman was quoted as saying: “You should forget the issue of US-Western military intervention in Syria and go to the peace talks, even without guarantees for what will result from the conference.”

For his part, the former US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, urged the Syrian opposition to stop talking about “changing the military balance” in Syria and instead participate in the peace talks.

Similar calls came from Russian deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who urged the Syrian opposition to attend the talks, promising them that “everything will be negotiable.”

As for Russia’s position on the fate of Assad, the source quoted a French diplomat as saying: “Moscow will accept discussions of the fate of Assad only if it obtains assurances and guarantees regarding the interim government, the fate of the military and security leadership, and Russian interests [in Syria].”

In exclusive comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, the Coalition’s ambassador to Paris, Munzir Makhous, spoke of a “growing trend within the Coalition that refuses to go to Geneva under the current circumstances.”

Makhous said the Coalition should “step up demands and conditions” prior to its participation in any peace talks.

Among the key demands of the opposition are the establishment of a no-fly zone over Syria, setting up humanitarian corridors into the besieged areas, and the release of prisoners held by the government, particularly the elderly, women and children.