Britain and other Western countries are pressuring Syria’s main opposition bloc to participate in peace talks with the government of President Bashar al-Assad to end the three-year conflict, the minister of state for foreign affairs has told Al Jazeera.
In a joint statement on Sunday, the “Friends of Syria” nations – US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt and Jordan – urged the Syrian National Coalition to attend the upcoming talks.
British Minister Hugh Robertson said there is no alternative to peace talks “and that is the most powerful argument for Geneva II”.
“There is a binary choice here. You either put pressure on them and try to have a peace agreement in Geneva. Or you do not bother and the fighting continues and if the West just stands back and says ‘this is too difficult’, then more people will die,” he told Al Jazeera.
The Coalition has said it will decide on its participation on January 17 – just five days before the scheduled start of the conference in Switzerland. It says it wants assurances that any deal would lead to the removal of Assad from power.
Members of the Coalition are divided on whether to attend. Dozens of them have threatened to leave the bloc if a decision is taken to take part.
The Syrian regime has said it will attend the conference but that Assad stepping down is not an option.
Influential armed opposition groups have rejected talks with Assad.
“I do not think anybody underestimates the difficulty of achieving a solution in Geneva. But at least if you have a peace agreement, and the two main parties are signed up to it, then you can start to isolate and deal with those people who want to carry on fighting,” Robertson told Al Jazeera.
The latest diplomatic moves come as clashes between Syrian rebels and fighters from an al-Qaeda-linked group continue in northern Syria.
I really do not want to see terrorists fight each other on Syrian soil. I'd much rather Syria had a peace agreement and then if people refused to accept that, then they will have to be dealt with afterward.
The fighting that erupted on January 3 has pitted a loose alliance of rebel brigades with different ideologies against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and left hundreds of people dead.
Jabhat al-Nusra, another al-Qaeda-linked group designated a terrorist organisation by several Western countries, has been fighting with the rebels against the ISIL in several areas.
“Infighting is not helpful. When terrorist groups fight each other, it is very unlikely that they will purely kill each other,” Robertson said.
“There almost bound to be collateral damage to civilians.
“I really do not want to see terrorists fight each other on Syrian soil. I’d much rather Syria had a peace agreement and then if people refused to accept that, then they will have to be dealt with afterward.”
Last month, the UK, along with the US, suspended all “non-lethal” support for rebels in northern Syria, citing concerns over the possibility of “extremist groups” seizing the aid from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Asked if the UK would consider sending non-lethal aid again in the future, Robertson said it would, “as soon as we are convinced that we can deliver that aid in such a way that it won’t fall into the hands of terrorist groups”.
The minister maintained that a solution should be achieved through political settlement and not through military means.
“If Geneva fails, we stop, we understand why, we regroup and we try again.”
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