BEIRUT — Syria's deputy prime minister on Thursday floated Nov. 23-24 as possible dates for talks on a political solution to the Syrian conflict, though there's no agreement on the ground rules for such negotiations and the main Western-backed opposition hasn't decided whether to attend.
The United States and Russia have been trying to bring the Damascus government and Syria's divided opposition to negotiations in Geneva for months, but the meeting has been repeatedly delayed. It remains unclear if either side is really willing to negotiate while Syria's civil war, now in its third year, remains deadlocked.
Meanwhile, the international agency overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile said that inspectors have so far found no "weaponized" chemical munitions, or shells ready to deliver poison gas or nerve agents, and that Syria's declarations up to now have matched what inspectors found.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations are working to verify Syria's initial declaration of its weapons program and render production and chemical mixing facilities inoperable by Nov. 1. Their work on the ground involves smashing control panels on machines and destroying empty munitions.
The team has visited 11 of more than 20 sites since Oct. 1 and carried out destruction work at six. "Cheap, quick and low-tech. Nothing fancy," OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said of the work.
In the next phase, the work gets more complex and dangerous when actual chemical weapons have to be destroyed — in the midst of full-blown war. Negotiations are still underway as to how and where that will happen.
Renewed efforts to organize political talks between the Syrian regime and the opposition stem from the U.N. Security Council resolution passed last month to rid Syria of its chemical weapons program.
The resolution also endorsed a framework for a political transition that key countries adopted last year and called for an international conference in Geneva to be convened "as soon as possible" to implement it.
Qadri Jamil, the Syrian deputy prime minister, said Thursday that "we are closer than ever" to talks in Geneva. "In our contact with the (Russian) Foreign Ministry, we were informed about the approximate and hypothetical dates for holding it," he said.
Russia's RIA Novosti news agency quoted him as saying "the conference will be held on the 23rd and 24th of November."
Alexander Lukashevich, a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, would not confirm or deny that the dates were being considered.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday that efforts are intensifying to try to hold the Geneva meeting in mid-November. Ban did not provide specific dates, and it's not clear whether the schedule provided by Jamil has been agreed to by any other parties.
The talks have been put off repeatedly, in part because of fundamental disagreements over the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, the main alliance of political opposition groups, has said it will only negotiate if it is agreed from the start that Assad will leave power at the end of a transition period. Many rebel fighters inside Syria flatly reject negotiating with Assad's regime
The regime has rejected such a demand, saying Assad will stay at least until the end of his term in mid-2014, and he will decide then whether to seek re-election. The regime has said it refuses to negotiate with the armed opposition.
Syria's revolt began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests against the Assad regime before eventually turning into a civil war. The conflict has killed more than 100,000 people, forced more than 2 million to flee the country and left some 4.5 million others displaced within the country.
It has also proven difficult and dangerous for journalists to cover, and press freedom advocate groups rank Syria as the most dangerous country in the world for reporters. Dozens of journalists have been kidnapped and more than 25 have been killed while reporting in Syria since the conflict began.
On Thursday, Sky News Arabia said that a team of its reporters had gone missing in the contested city of Aleppo. The Abu Dhabi-based channel said it lost contact on Tuesday morning with reporter Ishak Moctar, a Mauritanian national, cameraman Samir Kassab, a Lebanese national, as well as their Syrian driver whose name is being withheld at his family's request.
Sky News Arabia chief Nart Bouran says the crew was on assignment primarily to focus on the humanitarian aspects of the conflict in Aleppo. The channel appealed for any information on the team's whereabouts and for help to ensure the journalists' safe return.
The international weapons inspectors have also come close to the fighting.
Since their arrival Oct. 1, several mortar shells and two car bombs have exploded several hundred meters from the Damascus hotel where the OPCW-U.N. team is staying. Malik Ellahi, an OPCW official, said there is no way of knowing if the team is being deliberately targeted.
"In terms of the security situation there are always concerns but the team so far has, with the cooperation of the Syrian authorities, managed to conduct its work unimpeded," Ellahi told a small group of reporters at the organization's headquarters in the Netherlands on Thursday.
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