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Syrian Regime, Opposition Groups To Start Peace Talks In January


Now to talks aimed at bringing an end to the conflict in Syria. The U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon has set a date - January 22nd in Geneva - and it's the first time representatives of the Syrian government and rebel groups will discuss ending a war that has cost more than 100,000 lives, displaced millions and destabilized the entire region. NPR's Deborah Amos is in the Turkish town of Gaziantep, near the Syrian border. And, Deb, who's going to be at the table for these talks in Geneva?

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: You know, Audie, that's the question that's unraveled all the previous dates set. It's disputes over who represents the opposition, who will Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, send to Geneva? Does Iran get a seat at the table? Does Saudi Arabia and other regional powers? Now, today, the U.N. spokesman didn't specify the participants' list. But it's been clear over the past few months there is momentum for these talks.

The Assad government, backed by Russia, has pledged to attend the Syrian National Coalition - that's the main political opposition group, backed by the U.S. - has said yes, but, to the Geneva talks. A Western diplomat here told me that the key now is to manage the preconditions for both sides, so the warring parties can get past the gun and sit down and talk.

CORNISH: But given three year of brutal conflict, I mean, where will these talks start? And what exactly will the participants talk about?

AMOS: Well, the U.N. spokesman set out today the terms for this conference. Now this has been in place for more than a year. The parties will mutually come to an agreement over a transitional governing body with full executive powers, including over the military and security entities. That is exact wording.

Now, what it leaves out is what's the role for Syria's President Bashar al-Assad? The opposition has called for him to go before they'll sit down. The regime has said we're not going to Geneva to hand over power. So even if everybody gets to Geneva, there's a long way to go to solve this crisis. But simply getting to these talks could begin a dynamic of its own. And I think that's why the U.N. spokesman talked about getting this thing set today.

CORNISH: Deb, inside Syria, among civilians caught up in the violence, is there support for these talks in Geneva?

AMOS: There's no reliable polling, of course, but researchers have been asking, and what they say is Syrians who have nothing left to lose don't support the talks because they don't see that they get anything out of it. Now, for Syrians who still have something to lose, and that's people in the capital, there is wide support for these talks. Civilians are tired. They want the violence to end. We're now approaching the winter season. We have nine million Syrians inside the country that are dependent on international aid and the suffering is only going to get worse.

CORNISH: Now, rebel fighters are divided into countless groups. Some of them linked to al-Qaida. What are the chances that anything that happens at the negotiating table will change their agenda?

AMOS: That is the hardest question to answer. Of course, the al-Qaida groups don't recognize any political opposition. But even more moderate rebel groups have said they are against negotiations. The politicians outside the country, they have no authority over any of these groups. And many Syrian watchers are convinced that the violence will only get more intense ahead of these talks because both the regime and the rebels want to gain advantage on the battlefield before anybody goes to Geneva.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Deborah Amos, speaking with us from the Turkish town of Gaziantep, near the Syrian border. Deb, thank you.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.