World and Nation

Syrian peace talks to begin on Jan. 22

GENEVA — After months of delay, the United Nations said Monday that Syria’s government and the opposition would hold their first negotiations aimed at ending that country’s civil war in Geneva on Jan. 22. But the precise agenda for the negotiations, as well as a complete list of participants, remained unresolved.

The fixing of a date, which was announced in Geneva after a meeting of senior diplomats from the United Nations, United States and Russia, was welcomed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York that he regarded the impending negotiations as a “mission of hope” to halt the nearly 3-year-old conflict in Syria. More than 100,000 people have been killed and almost 9 million driven from their homes in the mayhem, which has sent tremors of instability through the Middle East.

“At long last and for the first time, the Syrian government and opposition will meet at the negotiating table instead of the battlefield,” Ban said.

His expectation, he said, was that the antagonists would come to the January meeting, known in diplomatic shorthand as Geneva II, with the intention of creating a transitional government with full executive powers — the objective of an international conference on the Syria conflict held in June 2012, known as Geneva I.

Ban’s announcement, coming a day after the successful negotiation in Geneva of an interim agreement to freeze parts of Iran’s contentious nuclear program, added to a sense of diplomatic momentum aimed at resolving two of the most vexing international problems.

“I would simply say that it was a good weekend for diplomacy,” Martin Nesirky, Ban’s spokesman, told reporters in New York.

But it was also clear that difficult and perhaps insurmountable issues still confronted the start of peace talks that Russia, which supports the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad, and the United States, which supports what it calls the moderate opposition, first proposed in May.

Hours after Ban spoke, his special representative on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who helped settle on the date of the negotiations, told reporters in Geneva that it had not yet been decided who would be invited to participate.

Brahimi, who has met periodically with Russian and U.S. diplomats, said at their last meeting, in early November, that deep divisions within Syria’s opposition had been the most immediate obstacle to holding a conference. Since then, the Syrian National Council, the opposition coalition in exile, has decided to participate. But who will be the lead representative of the opposition has not been settled.

Brahimi said he would meet U.S. and Russian officials again in Geneva on Dec. 20, hopefully for the last time before Geneva II, and that he hoped both the Syrian government and opposition would name their delegations before the end of the year.