Syria opposition announces negotiating team as peace talks get underway

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Geneva, Switzerland __ UN-mediated Syrian peace talks got underway here Friday, and are currently expected to continue into the weekend, western diplomats said.

UN/Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met separately with the two Syrian regime and opposition delegations on Friday. A meeting with both sdes and Brahimi in the same room, originally expected by some to take place Friday, may now occur on Saturday, the westerm diplomats said.

“Brahimi delayed the trilateral meeting planned for this morning to allow for more preparation,” a senior U.S. administration official said Friday. “Our understanding is that …he still plans to meet with the regime and the opposition together.”

“This is the beginning of a negotiation process, and as today has shown, expect ups and downs as it proceeds,” the US diplomat said. “What is important is that the Geneva II process continues.”

This will be a “step by step” process, another western diplomat said late Thursday. “The aim” on the delicate first day of talks “is to avoid walking outs ” by either side.

In one seemingly positive sign, the Syrian opposition coalition, ahead of meeting with Brahimi Friday, formally announced the members of its official negotiating team.

Syrian National Coalition President Ahmad Jarba is the head of the Syrian Coalition negotiator delegation in Geneva 2, a spokesperson for the group said. Mr. Hadi Bahra will lead the negotiation.

Other members of the Syrian National Coalition negotiating delegation, as announced by the team’s spokesman Dr. Louay Safi, are below the jump.

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Obama: Syria chemical attack would cross U.S. 'core national interests'


President Obama said Friday the United States was consulting with allies and considering how to respond if an investigation determines that Syria used chemical weapons in an alleged attack on rebel-held villages in the eastern Damascus suburbs of Ghouta this week.

“Although the situation in Syria is very difficult…there is no doubt that when you start seeing chemical weapons used on a large scale… then that starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region,” Obama told CNN’s Chris Cuomo in an interview aired Friday.

“We are right now gathering information about this particular event,” Obama continued, “but I can say that, unlike some of the evidence that we were trying to get earlier that led to a U.N. investigator going into Syria, what we've seen indicates that this is clearly a big event of grave concern.”

While the U.S., Europeans and Russia have called on the Syrian government to allow UN inspectors access to the site, “we don’t expect cooperation, given their past history,” Obama said.

But Obama also expressed caution about another military entanglement, and justified the more limited U.S. response to past events in the Syrian conflict that has killed over 100,000 people.

“That does not mean that we have to get involved with everything immediately,” he told CNN. “We have to think through strategically what's going to be in our long-term national interests, even as we work cooperatively internationally to do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians.”

His comments came a day after US military, intelligence and diplomatic officials met for over three hours at the White House Thursday “to deliberate over options, which officials say could range from a cruise missile strike to a more sustained air campaign against Syria,” the New York Times reported. But the meeting concluded with no decision, the paper said, amid continued divisions in Obama's national security team about the consequences of deepening U.S. intervention in Syria.

The U.S. military “can destroy the Syrian Air Force,” top US military officer Gen. Martin Dempsey wrote in a letter to House Foreign Affairs committee ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (D-NY) Monday (Aug 19), two days before the alleged attack in Ghouta. “The loss of Assad’s Air Force would negate his ability to attack opposition forces from the air, but it would also escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict,” while not being “militarily decisive.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry called Friday on both the Syrian government and the rebels to grant access to Ghouta to a UN chemical weapons inspection team currently in Damascus. Moscow has suggested that the August 21st attack in eastern Ghouta may have been staged by the opposition as a “pre-planned provocation.”

But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Friday that the chances that the rebels conspired to stage the attack are “vanishingly small,” and questioned why the Syrian regime had so far refused permission to the UN team to visit the area.

“It seems the Assad regime has something to hide,” Hague told the BBC Friday. “Why else have they not allowed the UN team to go there?”

The attack is “not something that a humane or civilized world can ignore,” Hague said.

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