Syrian peace talks could be held on November 23, but not without “credible opposition” participation, top diplomats said on Sunday, as a truck bomb in central Syria killed more than 30 people.
After a meeting with UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, the pointman for international efforts to end Syria’s nearly three-year civil war, Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said the so-called Geneva 2 talks would be held on November 23.
But Brahimi, speaking to reporters in Cairo, cautioned that the meeting would not be convened without a “credible opposition representing an important segment of the Syrian people” opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.
A truck bomb meanwhile struck in the government-controlled city of Hama, killing at least 31 people, the day after a major assault involving a suicide car bomb killed 16 soldiers in a key Damascus suburb and kicked off several hours of fierce clashes.
The mixed messages about the so-called Geneva meeting reflected concerns that the increasingly divided opposition would refuse to take part in talks with Assad’s regime, which insists his resignation is not on the table.
The renewed push for peace talks comes after a rare US-Russian accord compelled Syria to agree to destroy its chemical arsenal this month, but much of the opposition panned the deal because it averted punitive US strikes on the regime.
The main National Coalition opposition bloc said members will decide in the coming days whether to attend the Geneva talks, while the Syrian National Council, a key coalition member, has threatened to quit if they do.
The rift among the exiled opposition comes amid a surge in fighting among rebels on the ground, with the mainstream Free Syrian Army (FSA) clashing with the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
US Secretary of State John Kerry will head to Britain to attend a “Friends of Syria” meeting on Tuesday in which Western and Arab governments are expected to press the opposition to come together and attend the talks.
But even if the National Coalition attends the Geneva meeting, it is unclear whether it can enforce any agreement on the ground, after 13 prominent rebel brigades rejected the umbrella group last month.
Rebels on Sunday carried out a second major suicide bombing in as many days, this time in the Orontes Valley city of Hama, the site of a 1982 massacre of some 10,000 to 40,000 people ordered by president Hafez al-Assad during a crackdown on an earlier revolt.
“At least 31 people, including regime troops, were killed when a man detonated a truck laden with explosives at a checkpoint near an agricultural vehicles company on the road linking Hama to Salamiyeh,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The number of victims is expected to rise, “as there are dozens of wounded, some of them in critical condition,” added the Britain-based group, which relies on a network of activists and medics across the war-torn country.
The attack came a day after rebels from the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda-linked group, set off a car bomb and launched a major assault on a checkpoint near the mixed Christian-Druze neighbourhood of Jaramana in Damascus.
Fighting raged for much of the day, with rebel mortar fire hitting Jaramana and regime aircraft striking back, according to the Observatory, which said at least 16 soldiers and 15 jihadists were killed.
UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos on Saturday called for a ceasefire in another embattled Damascus suburb, Moadamiyet al-Sham, where thousands of people were evacuated last week and where she said “the same number or more remain trapped.”
The southwestern district was one of a number of suburbs hit in an August 21 sarin gas attack, blamed by the opposition on the regime, which led to the deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal.
Fighting raged around Deir Ezzor city early on Sunday. Activists of the Syrian Revolution Coordinators’ Union reported four air strikes on rebel-held areas of the provincial capital.
In the north, the air force carried out new strikes on rebel fighters around Aleppo central prison, which they are trying to wrest from government control, the Observatory said.
Inmates issued “calls to the Red Crescent to bring food into the jail, after a prisoner died on Saturday as a result of acute malnutrition.”
Meanwhile, nine Lebanese Shiite pilgrims seized by Syrian rebels 17 months ago and two Turkish Airlines pilots kidnapped in Beirut in August arrived back home late on Saturday under an exchange deal mediated by Turkey and Qatar.
The Syrian rebels had also demanded the release of some 200 prisoners from Syrian jails in exchange for freeing the pilgrims. It was not clear if those releases went ahead.