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Arab League chief announces date for Syrian peace talks

The chief of the Arab League announced a date for an attempt at Syrian peace talks yesterday, raising a glimmer of hope for a political solution to the ongoing civil war, more than a year after an initial round of talks collapsed.

Nabil Elaraby, the head of the Cairo-based Arab League, said that international powers would convene talks between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and opposition leaders Nov. 23 in Geneva. Elaraby told reporters the announcement came as the result of discussions with Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. envoy for Syria.

But in the same press conference in Cairo, Brahimi said an official date had not yet been set, Reuters reported.

Syrian opposition leaders swiftly dismissed the announcement as unwarranted hype in a process that has been repeatedly delayed. “They are saying there is a meeting, and I am saying that there isn’t yet,” said Haithem Maleh, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council.

Syria’s information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, said the government was ready to attend the Geneva talks but that it would not negotiate with “terrorists,” the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, or SANA, reported.

A “political solution has been an original choice for the Syrian government since the beginning of aggression on Syria,” Zoubi told the Lebanese satellite network al-Manar, according to SANA.

In attempting to bring opposition leaders and regime officials to the negotiating table more than two years into a civil war that has left more than 100,000 people dead, mediators have operated largely beyond the reality of events inside Syria, where regime shelling, armed assaults by rebels, and fierce clashes kill dozens of people every day.

As Elaraby announced the November talks yesterday, a suicide truck bomb struck a government checkpoint in the Syrian city of Hama, killing at least 37 people, SANA reported. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based pro-opposition watchdog, put the toll at 43 dead. It was the second deadly vehicle bomb to strike a government checkpoint in as many days.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition – the most likely group to represent Assad’s foes at the negotiating table – holds little sway inside Syria, which is wracked by competing rebel factions, as well as foreign fighters and financiers.

Islamist extremists, who appear better organized and funded than moderate Syrian rebels, have increasingly commanded the bulk of rebel fighting power in the Syrian war, and have exercised force against rebel adversaries.

A spokesman for the Syrian Opposition Coalition, a broad umbrella group of opposition leaders that encompasses the SNC, said that opposition leaders would not consider any date for peace talks official until the news comes from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. So far, the coalition had not been notified, said Khalid Saleh.

“As far as our attendance, we have not made a final decision,” he said.

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