Ministers from the “Friends of Syria” grouping are to meet in Paris Sunday with leaders of the mainstream opposition to President Bashar al-Assad ahead of peace talks due later this month.
Meanwhile, an al-Qaeda affiliate based in Iraq and Syria has vowed to crush rebel groups fighting it and to target members loyal to the Syrian National Coalition, the internationally recognized opposition group.
A French diplomatic source said the foreign ministers of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Qatar will be present at the meeting, among others, as will Ahmad Jarba, head of Syria’s mainstream opposition National Coalition.
The Coalition has yet to decide whether it will take part in UN-backed peace talks aimed at negotiating an end to a conflict.
The different factions in the Coalition were unable to reach an agreement on participation at two days of talks in Istanbul this week and decided to suspend the debate and meet again on January 17, just five days before the peace conference is to open in the the lakeside town of Montreux.
“The debates were very heated among the different groups that make up the coalition. It was not possible to take a decision,” a source close to the opposition told AFP.
The Syrian National Council, the main group in the Coalition, is threatening to boycott the peace talks unless it has assurances that Assad will be forced to give up power.
The Syrian government has said it will attend the talks but that Assad’s departure is not up for negotiation.
An audio statement from the spokesman of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham was issued late on Tuesday calling for continued fighting against other rebel groups, hours after the head of the al-Qaeda branch in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, called for a truce to halt five days of heavy rebel infighting.
The fighting “risks costing us dearly on the ground if it continues,” Nusra Front chief Abu Mohamed al-Jolani said in an audio message.
“The regime will gain new life when it was close to collapse,” he added, calling for a ceasefire, exchange of prisoners and the establishment of an Islamic committee to mediate disputes.
He urged all fighters “to give priority to the fight against the regime.”
The clashes have pitted many rebel groups in Syria, including Islamist forces, against ISIS and have been the bloodiest rebel-on-rebel violence since the civil war in Syria began in the first half of 2011.
“Crush them completely and kill the conspiracy in its cradle,” said the ISIS spokesman, known as Abu Mohammed al-Adnani.
While both the Nusra Front and ISIS have roots in the global al-Qaeda network and welcome foreign militants, the Nusra Front has focused its goals on toppling Assad instead of creating an Islamic state, which has been the main aim of ISIS.
Nusra forces have also cooperated more with other rebel groups and largely avoided the power struggles that ISIS has faced since wresting control of many opposition-held areas from other groups.
ISIS is the restructured al-Qaeda branch of Iraq, but its spread into Syria is opposed by al-Qaeda’s central leadership, which has recognized the Nusra Front instead.
Adnani said fellow Islamists had been dragged into a conspiracy against it.
“Those who are from battalions raising the flags of Islam, who tricked you? Who implicated you and made you sign to fight against the holy warriors?”
Rebel groups last week launched what appeared to be a series of coordinated strikes against ISIS in northern and eastern Syria after months of increasing tensions with the group. The fighting was endorsed by the opposition National Council, which is backed by Western and Gulf states.
Adnani also told ISIS fighters to “pluck the heads” of any National Coalition leaders or rebel groups tied to them.
“Kill them wherever you find them and without dignity,” he said. “They launched this war against us and started it … Therefore anyone who is a member of this entity is a legitimate target for us wherever he may be, unless he declares his innocence from this sect in public and renounces his fight against the holy warriors.”
It was impossible to verify the authenticity of the statement, but it was widely cited on Islamist social networks on the Internet.
Elsewhere in Syria, an international effort to dismantle the country’s chemical weapons program moved forward on Tuesday, with a first shipment of chemical material removed by sea.
The material was taken from the port of Latakia on a Danish vessel to international waters, where additional material will be gathered and then transported to a US ship for destruction.
Syria has pledged to give up its chemical weapons program, with a mid-2014 deadline for it to be completely dismantled.
The disarmament deal came after Washington threatened military action against Damascus in response to an August 2013 chemical weapons attack outside the capital that killed hundreds, and which the US blamed on the Syrian government.
In almost three years, the Syrian conflict has left more than 100,000 people dead and millions displaced. The United Nations announced on Tuesday that it has been unable to keep track of the casualty toll in the country since July, due to difficulties in verifying the accuracy of information coming from Syria.
(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)