Low expectations for Syrian peace talks

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By LARA JAKES, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — In its last-ditch attempt to get moderate Syrian opposition groups to the negotiating table, the U.S. faces the prospect that a no-show wouldn't be such a bad thing.

As the Jan. 22 peace meeting in Switzerland nears, the main Western-backed moderate political group trying to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad has not decided whether it will attend.

It's the latest frustration for the U.S. and allies who have spent the past 18 months trying to negotiate a transition of power from Assad to a new, representative government.

In a meeting this weekend in Paris, Secretary of State John Kerry will push the Syrian National Coalition's newly re-elected leader to bring his group to the Swiss conference.

But even if the coalition agrees to attend, analysts say it does not have enough credibility with other Syrian groups to sit as an official counterbalance to Assad's government.

"If the expectations to begin with are very low, then you can't really fail — can you?" Kamran Bokhari, a Toronto-based expert on Mideast issues for the global intelligence company Stratfor, said Friday. "The constraints that the U.S. has are clear to the international community, and it's not going to be a surprise.

"What would be a surprise is if they are able to make a difference," Bokhari said. "So nobody has too high of expectations."

The coalition's leader, Ahmad al-Jarba, heads a shaky alliance of opposition groups. They are sharply divided on whether to attend the conference, which is intended to begin a negotiated peace after three years of civil war.

Most of its leaders are in exile and have been accused by rebel fighters and other activists inside Syria of being ineffective and out of touch.

Assad has stabilized his grasp on areas of Syria he still controls and shows no sign of stepping down in the war that has left at least 120,000 people dead.

Persuading al-Jarba and the coalition to attend the peace conference will be a priority for Kerry and 10 other diplomats from Western countries and Sunni-dominated Arab states who are to meet Sunday in Paris.

For Syrian coalition members, the conference offers their first chance to face the Syrian administration face to face.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday that the U.S. doesn't believe the coalition will want to pass up the unique opportunity the conference offers.

Iran, which is allied with Assad, will not attend, U.S. officials said. That clears at least one objection of the moderate coalition. But the coalition also has asked that the peace conference set a time frame for an end to the fighting as its main focus, which U.S. officials have rejected.

Kerry also probably will discuss the possibility of resuming nonlethal aid to moderate rebel groups as a part of the talks in Paris.

The aid included medical supplies and communications equipment. It was halted in December amid fears it was being used by insurgents among the rebel groups, but could be used as a bargaining point with al-Jarba.

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