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Syria rebels balks at plan for "Geneva II" peace talks, military commander vows to fight on

Within 24 hours of an interim deal aimed at reining in Iran's nuclear program, world powers raised hopes Monday for the first face-to-face talks to end the Syrian civil war as the United Nations called the warring parties to the table. 

Monday's announcement of a date for the talks after months of delay produced palpable hope that the precedent of successful nuclear negotiations with Iran might open new diplomatic channels that could help broker an end to the nearly 3-year-old civil war in Syria that has killed more than 100,000 people.

But 24 hours later, those hopes were dealt a severe blow by the western-backed Syrian opposition. Gen. Salim Idris, head of the Syrian National Coalition's Supreme Military Council, made it clear in an interview with the Al Jazeera television network that the Council would not take part in the so called "Geneva II" talks, which a U.N. and Arab League envoy said Monday would begin on Jan. 22.

Idris said his fighters would "not stop combat at all during the Geneva conference or after it."

"Conditions are not suitable for running the Geneva II talks at the given date, and we, as a military and revolutionary force, will not participate in the conference," said Idriss. Based in neighboring Turkey, Idris and the SNC lack credibility with many of the rebel factions fighting inside Syria anyway, but as the leading umbrella group of what the U.S. and its allies deem "moderate" rebels, their non-participation in any peace talks could make them meaningless.

Highlighting the lack of cohesion even within his own opposition group, SNC political leader Ahmad al-Jarba gave a slightly less definitive assessment later on Tuesday, saying the opposition had not made "a final decision yet on our participation in the Geneva conference."

He said his group had indicated its desire to go, "but we think that the Syrian regime is the one which doesn't want to go to Geneva II but the Russians are putting pressure on them to attend."

In a loosely-veiled dig at the U.S., which, along with Russia and the U.N., has worked for months to bring both sides of the Syrian conflict to the negotiating table, Idris said, "what concerns us is getting needed weapons for our fighters."

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The Obama administration announced in June that it would increase the "scope and scale" of military aid to the rebels -- an effort that the White House vowed would only see military hardware placed in the hands of Idris' "vetted" rebel fighters. Idris has complained since then that the promised military support from the world’s most powerful nation has failed to arrive in any significant fashion.

Leaders in Washington and virtually every other nation involved in the Syrian crisis discussions on the world stage have long worried over the prevalence of Islamic extremist fighters among the rebel factions on the ground. No firm numbers are available, but intelligence officials in the U.S. and Europe have warned that young men following an al Qaeda-inspired ideology have flooded into Syria for two years now to fight alongside the other factions trying to topple Bashar Assad’s government.

Given the dire security situation in Syria, and the fact that the Islamic fundamentalist factions have been a more effective fighting force against Assad than the SNC's own rebels, it would be hard to guarantee that any weapons provided to one group wouldn’t fall into the hands of another.

The majority of the non-SNC rebel fighters in Syria would be even less likely to commit to political negotiations with the Assad regime, leaving little hope for an effective ceasefire even if Idris did command his fighters to lay down their arms.

And even if the SNC did speak for all of the opposition forces battling Assad's military and police, the group's leaders and the Assad regime hold fundamentally different visions on the very basics of any peace talks.

Under pressure from the U.S., the SNC has dropped conditions that Assad step down before any talks, but the coalition, in a statement issued Tuesday, reiterated its stand that there can be no role for Assad in any future transitional government.

"Bashar Assad or any of the criminals responsible for killing the Syrian people cannot be part of any transitional body and cannot have any role in Syria's political future," the statement said.

The Syrian government has roundly rejected the demands.

"These are trust-building measures that need to take place ahead of any talks, otherwise all efforts to convene a peace conference are futile," senior SNC member Abdelbaset Sieda told The Associated Press.

The nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers was announced in Geneva on Sunday, and it boosted hopes that new diplomacy in the Syrian crisis could yield results. Success in the Iran negotiations on a final accord could pave the way for normalization of ties between Iran and the West, reshaping the Mideast political map.

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As Assad's staunchest ally, Iran has given him significant financial support and is believed to have sent military advisers, trained pro-government militiamen and directed one of its proxies, Lebanon's Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, to fight alongside Assad's troops.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif said Tuesday that Iran would take part in the Geneva II talks, if invited by the United Nations to attend.

"Participation of Iran in Geneva 2 is in our view an important contribution to the resolution of the problem. We have said all along that if Iran is invited, we will participate without any preconditions," he said on Iranian television. 

The SNC’s Sieda expressed hope Monday that the nuclear deal with Iran would transform the Islamic Republic into a "positive regional player," relinquishing its support for Assad.

"We hope the Iranian nuclear deal will provide impetus for a Syria deal," the SNC’s Abdelbaset Sieda told the AP. "The Iranian government must cut relations with the regime and leave the choice to the Syrian people."

A break between Iran and Assad is unlikely in the short term given the foothold the alliance gives Tehran in the Arab world. Still, a thaw between Iran and the U.S. could prompt Tehran to encourage Assad to make concessions, at least enough to keep talks going.

The conference aims to work out a roadmap for Syria adopted by the U.S., Russia and other major powers in June 2012 -- including creating a transitional government leading to the holding of elections.

Enormous challenges lie ahead. As Idris’ remarks Tuesday made clear, even participation by both sides is by no means guaranteed.

Previous attempts to bring Syria's warring sides together have failed miserably, mainly because of disputes over who should represent the opposition and the government, as well as whether Iran, Saudi Arabia and other regional powers should be at the table, and -- above all -- whether Assad will remain in office in the future.

Syrian officials say Assad, whose troops currently hold momentum on the ground in Syria, will not surrender power and may even run again in elections due in mid-2014.

The Syrian government, in its first comment Monday, said it is ready to take part in a peace conference, while insisting it has a "constitutional duty" to protect the Syrian people from the "crimes of armed terrorist groups," a reference to the rebels.

"No one should underestimate the difficulties ahead," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement Monday. He called the meeting the best opportunity to "form a new transitional governing body through mutual consent."

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that removing Assad is the goal of the talks.

U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky suggested Monday that the world powers were confident all sides would attend, saying the U.S., Russia and the U.N would not have announced the date "without consultations beyond that trilateral group."

It remained to be seen, however, who or what entity might purport to speak for Syria’s opposition in lieu of the SNC.