Key countries meet in latest push to launch Syrian peace talks

Some 20 foreign ministers on Friday were tackling the most difficult issues for a possible end to Syria's civil war, including sorting out which Syrian groups will represent the opposition in peace talks in the new year and which will be considered terrorist organizations instead.

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Diplomats remained divided over a resolution that the UN Security Council was expected to adopt just after the talks endorsing the process. Syria's main opposition group said a Jan. 1 deadline for starting peace talks was "too ambitious."

And the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad in a political transition remains the most challenging issue of all.

Two hours into Friday's meeting, diplomats said discussions were focused on which groups in Syria should be considered terrorist organizations. Thursday evening, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told The Associated Press there "seems to be no agreement" on that and on who should represent the opposition.

During a break in the talks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry breezed by reporters and said negotiations were "going well."

On his way into the meeting at a New York hotel, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the two most important issues are launching political negotiations and implementing a UN-monitored ceasefire. "Without peace talks, the cease-fire cannot be sustained. Without a cease-fire, peace talks cannot continue to produce results," he said.

"We must realize the political process is going to go backward if we are not making progress," Wang said. He noted the "severe threat posed by international terrorism," a reference to the Islamic State group, which has exploited the chaos to seize large parts of Syria.

Serious differences remain between Russia and Iran, which support the government of Assad, and backers of the Syrian opposition, including the United States, key European nations, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Russia and the West continue to be split on the issue the fate of Assad.

British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said negotiations were still taking place on the Security Council resolution. UN diplomats said a key stumbling block was how to address the issue of the transitional government.

"We continue to look at this optimistically and are putting a lot of effort into getting an agreement," Rycroft said.

Rycroft said the Security Council resolution would not break new ground but would enshrine agreements from talks in Vienna and Geneva.

The resolution would be a rare gesture of unity in a Security Council that has been bitterly divided on Syria. But Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Thursday, "I'm not sure it's going to happen."

A peace plan agreed to last month by 20 nations meeting in Vienna sets a Jan. 1 deadline for the start of negotiations between Assad's government and opposition groups. The plan says nothing about Assad's future but says that "free and fair elections would be held pursuant to the new constitution within 18 months."

The Jan. 1 deadline is "too ambitious a timetable," the UN representative for the Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed opposition group, told reporters Friday morning. Najib Ghadbian estimated that a month of preparation is needed.

Ghadbian also said a comprehensive solution to the conflict requires "the removal of all foreign troops from Syria, all of them," including Russia, which began airstrikes there in September. The strikes are focused on more moderate forces fighting Assad in areas where the Islamic State group has little or no presence.

"For us, the utmost priority is to stop the killing. Then we can make headway with a ceasefire and political transition," Ghadbian said.


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