Canada and Germany pressed Syrian opposition leaders to attend a peace conference next month, as a potential boycott threatens to turn the planned talks into a fiasco.
Already, the United States and Russia, which are jointly organizing the conference, are blaming each other for undermining the proposed talks. And Russia’s plans to send advanced anti-aircraft missiles to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have heightened tensions, and have led Israel to suggest it could strike before they are deployed.
Now, Syrian opposition representatives, meeting in Istanbul, are threatening to boycott the proposed talks.
“If there’s to be a political solution, obviously both sides have to be at the table,” Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said at a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in Ottawa.
Mr. Westerwelle made it clear that his country thinks the opposition umbrella group, the National Coalition, has a duty to show up.
“I’m very concerned by the news coming from Istanbul,” Mr. Westerwelle said. “The National Coalition of the opposition has the responsibility and an obligation to create a united front and to work and to participate constructively at the planned Syria conference.”
A boycott would leave Western nations, now calling for a political solution, with a tattered diplomatic strategy for Syria. On Thursday, Russian news agencies quoted a foreign ministry official saying that Russian, U.S. and United Nations officials will meet next week in Geneva to seek ways to bring the Syrian sides to the peace conference.
Britain, France and the United States have suggested they would increase their backing of the Syrian opposition if Mr. Assad did not negotiate. Now Mr. Assad is planning to send representatives, and the opposition is balking.
But the opposition, never cohesive, is struggling to patch its own divisions at the meeting in Istanbul, even as the Assad regime, after retaking some key territory, is claiming it has seized the momentum in Syria’s civil war. Western nations will undoubtedly place heavy pressure on the coalition to show up for the talks.
This week, the European Union lifted an arms embargo so that Britain and France will be allowed to ship weapons if the peace conference fails. Mr. Baird has warned that sending arms will only increase the violence in Syria; Mr. Westerwelle, who represents a country that wanted to keep the embargo intact, said the move does not mean arms will be shipped to Syrian opposition forces immediately. He also expressed fear that weapons could end up in the wrong hands – presumably those of Islamist extremists fighting to oust the Assad regime.
Moscow denounced the lifting of the EU arms embargo, as well as the United States’ unwillingness to rule out the establishment of a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, as potentially harmful to peace talks. But Russia’s own sale of advanced S-300 missiles, designed to track and shoot down aircraft and missiles, is creating far more tensions.
Mr. Assad’s comments in a television interview on Thursday, in which he said that some of Syria’s arms agreements with Russia have already been implemented, were initially viewed in some quarters as an assertion that some of the S-300s had already been shipped. But it was unclear if the remarks were intended as a more general response: Russian officials told international news organizations that none of the missiles had been shipped.
The deployment of those missiles would make it harder for foreign countries to hit the regime with air strikes, or establish a no-fly zone. Israel has said it considers the delivery of the Russian weapons a threat and hinted it will strike them.
Mr. Westerwelle said he recently warned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that no country should take steps that could “spoil” plans for the peace conference. He said he did not know if Russia had delivered the weapons, but added that “the whole discussion is something we really do not appreciate.”