No direct meetings to start Syria peace talks: Kerry

DAVOS, Switzerland -- The opposing sides will not initially meet face-to-face in planned Syria peace talks in Geneva next week, U.S.

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Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday, a sign that obstacles remain in the latest diplomatic push to end the conflict.

The first U.N.-brokered meeting in the Swiss city will be "proximity talks" in which representatives of the government and opposition will gather separately, Kerry said on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The talks are tentatively planned to take place Monday, but diplomats say that could slip by up to a few days.

The cautious, step-by-step approach points to the delicate task faced by U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, who is eager to make concrete progress toward ending the nearly five-year-old war that has claimed more than 250,000 lives, displaced millions and given an opening to the extremist Islamic State group to seize land.

The intra-Syrian talks also come against the backdrop of a string of recent battlefield victories by the government that have bolstered President Bashar Assad's hand and plunged the rebels into disarray, raising the prospect that the Geneva talks could become moot as the situation on the ground evolves.

"You are not going to have a situation where people are sitting down at the table staring at each other or shouting at each other," Kerry. "You're going to have to build some process here."

Such talks have fallen apart before: An attempt in Montreux, Switzerland, in January and February 2014 collapsed when the Syrian delegation refused to discuss Assad and branded the opposition terrorists. One of the major sticking points has been the list of invitees.

In an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif of Iran -- a strong backer of Assad -- said he hadn't seen a final list of expected attendees. Also on hand in Davos on Thursday, Ahmet Davutoglu, prime minister of Syria's neighbour Turkey, said the "only criteria" was that "there should not be representation of terrorist groups."

Kerry said de Mistura probably would not send the invitations until Sunday.

"I think what will happen is that on Monday there will be some discussions but I would say by Tuesday or Wednesday people will be able to get there. We just see this as logistical," he told a small group of reporters in Davos.

Kerry, who met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Zurich on Wednesday and then briefly with Zarif in Davos, will be travelling to Saudi Arabia over the weekend for talks with Saudi officials on how to push forward the political process.

He said he believed current tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, inflamed by the Saudi execution of a prominent Shiite cleric that sparked the sacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, would not affect the Syria talks. And he noted that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had on Wednesday apologized for the attack on the embassy.

"The supreme leader went to the extraordinary length of actually apologizing yesterday," Kerry said. "That is very significant and I hope people will recognize that in today's context, measured against where we've been, that's a huge step."


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