By Stephanie Nebehay and Louis Charbonneau
GENEVA/NEW YORK (Reuters) – An international peace conference aimed at ending Syria’s civil war will be held on January 22, the first face-to-face talks between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and rebels seeking to overthrow him, the United Nations said on Monday.
The United Nations is hoping for a peaceful transition in Syria, building on an agreement between world powers reached in June last year in Geneva.
“We have a clear goal,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in New York.
That was the “full implementation of the Geneva Communique of 30 June 2012″, including the establishment of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, including over military and security entities.
Ban said nothing about who had been invited to the talks and took no questions from reporters.
The participation of Syria’s ally Iran in the peace conference has been a major stumbling block as Washington has opposed it, while Russia has backed Tehran’s attendance.
The United States and European governments have said Iran could only attend the so-called “Geneva 2″ talks in January if it embraces the outcome of the June 2012 conference, which called for a transitional government to replace Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s cabinet.
The announcement of fresh talks came as Syria mediator Lakhdar Brahimi met senior U.S. and Russian officials in Geneva in his latest effort to get negotiations on track to end a war, now in its third year, that has killed more than 100,000 people.
Brahimi, with backing from world powers, has been trying to convene a peace conference since May and had hoped it could be held in December. He will hold a news conference at 1030 ET.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said it was not yet agreed whether Iran should be invited, Interfax news agency reported. Separately, Western diplomats agreed.
World powers including the United States clinched a deal on curtailing Iran’s nuclear program at the weekend, in a sign of easing tensions between the longtime foes.
A senior European Union diplomat involved in issues relating to Iran and Syria said that after Sunday’s deal, “I cannot imagine Washington continuing to object to an Iranian presence”.
Other diplomatic sources, however, said there was no assumption that Iran would come to Geneva 2 simply because a nuclear deal was achieved.
Following the announcement of talks, Britain and France made clear they were still insisting that Iran must accept the June 2012 agreement before it can be invited to Geneva 2.
“Until Iran publicly endorses the Geneva communiqué, and therefore makes clear that it supports the purpose of the Geneva 2 conference, it is hard to see how it can play a constructive role in finding a political solution to the conflict,” a spokeswoman for the British Foreign Office said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said “a political transition would mean that Assad can have no future role in Syria”.
A French diplomat said Iran would have to accept the terms of the June 2012 agreement before it could attend.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed the Syrian opposition for delays in convening the conference, saying it had repeatedly set out conditions for participation, including Assad’s exit, which Moscow says cannot be a precondition for a peace process.
Lavrov, speaking in Rome during a trip with President Vladimir Putin, said: “It could have been held much earlier if the opposition had felt responsibility for its country and had not put forward preconditions when we met in September, October, November,” state-run Russian news agency RIA reported.
A U.S. official said Secretary of State John Kerry would attend the January talks.
(Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Paul Taylor and John Irish in Paris, Andrew Osborn in London and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Giles Elgood)
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