Syria’s government and the main Western-backed opposition coalition have both confirmed they will attend United Nations-sponsored peace talks.
However, the two sides have continued to stake out starkly different positions on the goal of the talks, which are set to begin January 22 in Geneva.
Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi said the government delegation will not go to Geneva to surrender power, but only to hold discussions toward a political settlement.
The resignation of the government has consistently been a key demand of the opposition during the conflict, which erupted more than 2.5 years ago, in March, 2011.
"We will go to Geneva not to surrender power as we always repeat, but to participate with the others in the decision-making process," Halqi said. "We will participate with the others in parliament in forming a national unity government."
The upcoming conference has been dubbed “Geneva 2,” in reference to an international meeting on the Syrian war that was held in Geneva in June, 2012. That meeting called for the creation of a transitional government, but did not require that President Bashar al-Assad leave power.
Ahmad Jarba, leader of the Syrian National Coalition opposition group, told news agencies that he sees the Geneva meetings as leading toward the formation of a transitional democratic government without Assad.
Jarba also said Iran would be welcome at the talks only if Tehran stops backing proxy forces fighting on the government side.
"Iran is a real partner in the killing of Syrian people, and if it wants to attend, then it must withdraw its troops, Hizballah forces, and extremist Iraqi fighters," Jarba said.
Iran, along with Russia, has remained among the Damascus government’s few international allies. Tehran has suggested it could attend the Geneva talks if invited.
On November 27 in Tehran, the Iranian and Turkish foreign ministers jointly called for Syria’s warring factions to agree to a cease-fire as soon as possible, saying a halt in fighting would enhance the chances of success at the peace talks.
Iran and Turkey support different sides in the war. Turkey is prominent supporter of the rebels, along with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United States, France, and Britain.
The United States, meanwhile, reiterated its position that the Geneva talks should be aimed at forming a transitional government.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki rejected allegations of foreign meddling in the Syrian crisis, saying the establishment of a transitional government is the best way to end bloodshed and the suffering of the Syrian people.
In related news, the Syrian army has recaptured a strategic town near the Lebanese border, less than a week after losing it to the rebels.
The takeover of Deir Attiyeh, on the Damascus-Homs highway on November 28, comes amid international efforts to hold a peace conference aimed at ending the 32-month conflict.
Government forces appear to be pushing for as many military successes as possible for leverage at the upcoming talks in Geneva.
Estimates say the Syrian war has so far killed an estimated 120,000 people and forced millions of Syrians from their homes.
With reporting from Reuters, AP, and AFP