Closed-door meeting seeks to pin down details of Syria peace conference
The international envoy on the Syrian conflict on Monday huddled with US and Russian officials in Geneva in a bid to set a date for a peace conference, widely expected for January.
After a string of previous talks with Washington and Moscow, Monday's closed-door meeting with veteran United Nations and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was likely to pin down details of the long hoped-for Syrian peace talks.
Over the weekend, diplomats said that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was to announce the date shortly after the meeting in Geneva.
"The purpose is to finalise all the preparations and agree on details for Geneva II," Brahimi's spokeswoman Khawla Mattar said after negotiators arrived at the UN's Geneva building.
The international community has struggled to broker talks between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels battling him since a bloody March 2011 crackdown on Arab Spring-inspired protests.
"They have patched over enough of the differences that the conference will be held, but it will miss Ban's aim of December. It is now set for early January," one UN diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
"It may slip into January but it will be announced," added a second UN diplomat.
The increasingly sectarian civil war had claimed more than 120,000 lives, driven more than two million people from the country and left millions more within Syria reliant on international aid to survive.
The so-called Geneva II conference is meant as a follow-up to one held in June 2012, where world powers issued a call for a Syrian transition government.
But Syria's warring sides failed to agree on whether Assad or his inner circle could play a role in the process, and amid spiralling fighting plans for Geneva II have repeatedly been put on hold.
Brahimi met Monday with officials including Russian deputy foreign ministers Mikhail Bogdanov and Gennady Gatilov, as well as Wendy Sherman, US undersecretary of state for political affairs.
Russia, Assad's key world-power ally, has been pressing the Syrian government to cooperate on the conference. The United States, Britain and France have been working on the fractured Syrian opposition.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition has agreed to attend a peace conference.
But its authority is threatened by Islamist and other militant groups which have warned that anyone taking part in talks will be deemed a traitor.
The coalition has also demanded that Assad stand down, while the government, in turn, has insisted that the president's future cannot be a matter for discussion.
"There are still doubts over whether Assad will send a delegation to Geneva that can take decisions," commented a UN diplomat.
Iran is also a key supporter of Assad, and Russia has sought to have Tehran involved in any peace talks, raising hackles in the West and in Saudi Arabia, a key opposition supporter.
But hopes of new headway on that front were raised after world powers on Sunday reached a landmark deal with Iran to rein in the Islamic republic's controversial nuclear programme, after five days of intensive talks in Geneva.
As top diplomats huddled in Geneva last week for the Iran negotiations, they were also laying groundwork for the Syria conference, with Brahimi meeting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
Iran has yet to accept the Geneva declaration of 2012, and Western nations say it should not be involved in peace talks until it does.
"The compromise may be that Iran and Saudi Arabia will take part in meetings around the conference, but not the formal talks," said a senior Western official.