By John Davison
Syria‘s main opposition group said it would attend peace talks on Monday but accused the government of President Bashar al-Assad of preparing to escalate the war.
The UN-brokered talks, which coincide with the fifth anniversary of the conflict, will take place in Geneva two weeks after the start of a ceasefire agreement which has reduced violence although not halted the fighting.
The High Negotiations Committee said it would attend as part of its “commitment to international efforts to stop the spilling of Syrian blood and find a political solution”.
But in its statement on Friday it played down any chance of reaching agreement with theSyrian government to end the war that has killed more than 250,000 people and led to a refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe.
Russia said it expected its ally Syria to attend, although Damascus has yet to publicly confirm it will do so. The Syrian foreign minister is expected to announce his government’s position on the talks on Saturday.
Peace talks convened two years ago collapsed because the sides were unable to agree an agenda: Damascus wanted a focus on fighting terrorism, the term it uses for the rebellion, while the opposition wanted to discuss a transitional government.
The latest talks are intended to focus on future political arrangements in Syria, a new constitution and elections, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said.
The opposition HNC said it wanted the talks to concentrate on the establishment of an interim governing body with full executive powers.
HNC coordinator Riad Hijab said the group was “concerned with representing the just cause of the Syrian people … and investing in all available chances to alleviate the Syrian people’s suffering”.
“We know that they (the government) are committing crimes, and that they are preparing an air and ground escalation in the coming period,” he said, without elaborating.
A prominent Syrian dissident, Haytham Manna, said he would stay away from the talks, which he regarded as a “failing project”.
Manna, whose Syrian Democratic Council includes Kurdish members, boycotted the last round of talks because the Kurds were not invited.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said however that de Mistura should this time include representatives of Kurdish groups, which have been fighting in Syria.
The Kurds have not been invited so far because regional power Turkey does not want them in Geneva and says they are terrorists. Russia says they are a legitimate part of a future Syria, so they must be at the table.
There has been speculation that they will be included in the coming round. De Mistura says he has not expanded the list of invitees, but the talks’ format gives him flexibility to consult whomever he wants.
The “cessation of hostilities” agreement which came into force on Feb. 27 does not include the two main jihadist groups, Islamic State and the Nusra Front.
A source close to the government said the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes, is aiming to capture the historic city of Palmyra from Islamic State and open a road to the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, where the jihadists are also established.
The Russian air force has hit Palmyra with dozens of air strikes since Wednesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
Syrian government forces were on Friday battling Islamic State 7 km from the ancient site that fell to the jihadists last May.
Islamic State has blown up ancient temples and tombs since capturing Palmyra in what the UN cultural agency UNESCO has called a war crime.
The capture of Palmyra and further eastward advances into Deir al-Zor would mark the most significant Syrian government gain against Islamic State since the start of the Russian intervention last September.