Syria crisis: Meeting of the 'London 11' fails to deliver hope of breakthrough

Saudis withdraw co-operation from the West and opposition warns there are no guarantees it will turn up for talks

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The Independent Online

A key meeting in London that was supposed to pave the way for peace to break out in Syria ended with one of the main backers of the rebels, the Saudis, declaring it will withdraw cooperation with the West and the main opposition group warning there are no guarantees it will turn up for projected talks with Bashar al-Assad's regime.

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, and William Hague, the British foreign secretary, made strenuous pleas to the opposition to turn up to the summit planned in Geneva next month which is also being backed by Russia. But there appeared to be doubts among its leaders that they will be able to get enough votes to do so at a forthcoming conference of their coalition of disparate groups.

The proceedings in London took place in the shadow of a furious missive from Saudi Arabia charging the Obama administration of failing the rebels and criticising its attempted rapprochement with Iran, a bitter regional rival, as well as the stance over the Arab Spring and Palestine.

Confusion, meanwhile, surrounded the position of the Syrian opposition which attended today's London talks. They had not set a pre-condition of Bashar al-Assad's removal from power to attend the Geneva meeting, both Mr Kerry and Mr Hague assured a press conference this afternoon.

But the president of the opposition coalition, Ahmed Jarba, taking the podium immediately afterwards, was adamant: "The Sultan must leave. Geneva cannot succeed and we cannot take part if it allows Assad to gain more time to spill the blood of our people while the world looks on. We shall be traitors to our people if we let this happen."

Some of the journalists in the room who had not heard the full sentence thought that Mr Jarba was demanding that Prince Bandar Bin Sultan should resign. This was clarified, but there was further confusion when he later seemed to say that the opposition will be going to Geneva after all even if President Assad remains in power.

The issue will be decided by a vote during a conference of the coalition in Istanbul early next month; opposition officials were of the view that there was no certainty that the majority would support attending Geneva. One of them, Salim al-Meslet, said : " We have asked the ministers [of states attending the London talks] to give us something to take to the vote, try to get food and medicine through to those suffering, get the Russians to get Assad free women and children in jail, that will help on Geneva."

However a communique was issued jointly by the Syrian and 11 countries supporting them setting out the broad basis for political transition. Mr Hague acknowledged that the Geneva process faced "immense difficulties", but warned that unless moderate forces were supported, the country would be left at the mercy of either Assad or extremist jihadists who have latched onto the conflict. "The alternative is a protracted conflict in which neither side will be able to achieve a military victory over the other."

Speaking about Saudi anger, the British foreign secretary pointed out that the country's foreign minister, Prince Saudi al-Faisal, had signed the joint communique and had, indeed, sat next to Mr Kerry at lunch.

Mr Kerry said the Saudis were "obviously disappointed" that the threatened military strike on the regime by the US after the use of chemical weapons at Ghouta did not take place. He added that President Obama had asked to him to hold talk to Saudi officials, which he described as "very, very constructive and I am convinced we are on the same page as we are proceeding forward."

Video: Bomb blast by Syrian rebels