U.S. Says ‘No Preconditions’ Ahead of Syrian Peace Talks, But Turkey Gets Its Way
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday Syrian rebel groups should not set “preconditions” to attending peace talks due to begin in Geneva on Friday but he did not criticize Turkey’s demand that a significant Syrian Kurdish group not be invited.
Opposition figures are up in arms over the fact there will be no lull in attacks on civilian areas or humanitarian access ahead of the negotiations, as called for in a U.N. Security Council resolution that endorsed the peace talks effort.
Members of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), a body established to represent the opposition in U.N.-convened talks with the Assad regime, have suggested they may not attend unless they get answers to questions sent to the U.N.’s point man, Staffan de Mistura.
Earlier in the week Arabic media report claimed that Secretary of State John Kerry, during a meeting with HNC members in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, had threatened to withdraw all U.S. support if the opposition does not attend the talks. Kerry called those reports “rumors.”
At a daily press briefing Wednesday, Toner said the administration believed the opposition should go to Geneva, and should do so “without preconditions.”
The U.S. does take calls for a ceasefire and humanitarian access seriously, he said, “but there is an urgency to getting these talks started.”
A reporter asked when “no preconditions” had become a guiding principle, noting that previous meetings had included the precondition that all parties accept a statement agreed by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) last November, setting out a rough timetable for a transition aimed at ending the civil war.
Toner characterized that as different, saying that was a bid to get all parties into the talks.
“We don’t want these demands or preconditions – the ceasefire, end to barrel bombing, and also humanitarian access to some of these areas – to stand in the way of getting that process going,” he said.
“We understand that these are valid concerns, urgent concerns on the part of the Syrian opposition. We want to see movement on them as well, but we don’t want to see them stop this process from starting.”
Major hurdles in the way of the talks include disputes between various ISSG members over who should be allowed to take part.
On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned his government would boycott the talks if a major Syrian Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), was invited.
At Turkey’s insistence de Mistura, who was tasked by the ISSG to issue invitations, did not send one to the PYD.
Pointing to that development, a reporter suggested that Turkey was being allowed to set preconditions.
“That ‘no precondition’ advice that you gave to the Syrian opposition that doesn’t seem to apply to Turkey, because it’s Turkey which has very openly said that if the PYD is included in the talks, we will not participate,” he said. “Would your advice go for the Turks as well?”
Toner said Turkey has “very real and almost existential concerns about peace and stability in Syria because it threatens them directly.”
But as for the PYD’s exclusion, at least in the talks’ initial stages, he said, that “was a decision taken by de Mistura and his people.”
“Do you tell the Turks as well to have no preconditions?” the reporter pressed.
Toner replied that he was not going to talk about “our conversations with the Turks.”
“I can say that we have very frank exchanges as befitting a NATO ally and a strong partner in this process.”
Turkey opposes the PYD and its YPG armed wing because of its affiliation to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group that waged a bloody separatist struggle in south-eastern Turkey for three decades.