BEIRUT - Syria's government has agreed to attend a U.S.-Russian-brokered peace conference, according to Moscow. While this development might seem at first glance to be a step toward ending the civil war, strong skepticism persists on both sides.
Doubting that Damascus is serious and may be stalling while government forces make battlefield gains, the Syrian opposition has demanded guarantees that President Bashar Assad's departure top the agenda; Russia questioned whether the fragmented opposition is capable of negotiating with one voice.
The war has killed more than 70,000 people, and both sides are firmly entrenched in their positions and appear unwilling to compromise to stop the carnage and chaos engulfing the country.
Head of the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces Mouaz al-Khatib, left, speaks during the group's meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday. A spokesman said Syria's main opposition bloc welcomes renewed calls by its foreign supporters that Syrian President Bashar Assad give up power at the start of any political transition aimed at ending the country's civil war. The three-day meeting started in Istanbul to lay out conditions for possible talks with regime representatives in Geneva next month.
"We are not willing to enter a tunnel with no guarantees of a light at the end of that tunnel," said Muhieddine Lathkani, a London-based Syrian opposition figure. "There's still a lot of fogginess surrounding the talks and we are waiting for some answers," he said in a telephone interview.
Much about the conference remains up in the air, including the date, the agenda, the timetable and the participants. Officials have said it should be held in June.
The U.S. is working to convince Syrian rebels to attend, and the Russians have been pressing Assad's regime to take part as well.
U.S. officials said Secretary of State John Kerry will extend a seven-day trip through the Middle East and Africa by one day to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday to discuss their joint initiative.
The opposition is deeply suspicious about Assad's intention to hold serious peace talks, and the fact that the announcement was made by the Russians - Assad's government has not issued a definitive statement of its own - added to the skepticism.
"We would like to hear from the spokesman of the Syrian government. Why is Russia speaking on behalf of Syria?" opposition figure Louay Safi said.
Assad has already indicated he will stay in power at least until the 2014 presidential election in Syria and has nothing to lose by agreeing to take part in the conference, or at least going through the motions.