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Saudi Arabia hosting Syrian opposition ahead of peace talks

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Saudi Arabia is hosting Syrian opposition groups and many of the main rebel factions next week in an effort to come up with a unified front ahead of peace talks with Syrian government representatives scheduled to begin early next year.

The meeting is the first of its kind in the kingdom, a main backer of the opposition, underscoring how the internationally backed effort is the most serious yet to end the nearly five-year civil war, which has killed more than a quarter of a million people and triggered a refugee crisis of massive proportions.

The rebel factions’ participation points to the evolution in the position of many of them that long rejected any negotiations with Damascus as long President Bashar Assad was in power.

Now they are on board to attempt a process that the United States and its allies say must eventually lead to Assad’s removal but with no timetable for it.

At the three-day gathering that starts Tuesday in Riyadh, the factions will try to form a unified opposition delegation and a platform regarding what is meant to be a transitional period in Syria, officials who were invited said.

“We will be negotiating Assad’s departure,” said Mustafa Osso, the vice president of the Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed opposition group. “If this regime stays, violence will continue in Syria and there will be no stability,” he said, speaking from Turkey.

Osso will be part of what he said will be a 20-member delegation from the coalition at the Riyadh meeting.

A peace plan agreed to last month by 17 nations meeting in Vienna sets a January 1 deadline for the start of negotiations between Assad’s government and opposition groups. The plan says nothing about Assad’s future, but states that “free and fair elections would be held pursuant to the new constitution within 18 months.”

Among the nations that took part in the Vienna meeting were the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Russia and Iran have been Assad’s strongest supporters since the crisis began in March 2011 while Saudi Arabia and Turkey have backed factions trying to remove the Syrian president from power.

In Tehran, Iran’s deputy foreign minister denounced the planned gathering in Saudi Arabia, the official IRNA news agency reported.