BEIRUT (AP) — Syria's main Western-backed opposition group pushed Tuesday for President Bashar Assad's government to establish humanitarian corridors to besieged opposition areas and release political prisoners, saying it wants to see progress on those confidence-building measures before it will decide whether to attend an international peace conference.
The statement from the Syrian National Coalition made clear the huge hurdles still ahead as the international community tries to bring the warring sides together for peace talks scheduled for Jan. 22. The long-delayed negotiations, which would be the first face-to-face meeting between the Assad government and its opponents, aim to broker a political resolution to Syria's civil war.
After months of diplomacy, the U.N. announced the date for the peace conference on Monday, raising hopes that an end to the seemingly intractable conflict could be within reach. A full list of participants has not been set yet.
The violence, however, has shown no sign of tapering off. On Tuesday, a suicide car bombing outside a bus station in the town of Sumariyah near Damascus killed at least 15 people and wounded more than 30, state TV and activists said.
Meanwhile, government airstrikes on the rebel-held town of Nabek, where Assad's troops are waging an offensive, killed at least seven people, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The group monitors the conflict through a network of activists on the ground.
Speaking to reporters in Cairo, Coalition chief Ahmad al-Jarba said the opposition umbrella group "did not make a final decision" yet on attending the Geneva talks. He said his group has indicated its desire to take part, "but we think that the Syrian regime is the one which doesn't want to go to Geneva 2 but the Russians are putting pressure on them to attend."
Monzer Akbik, chief of staff of al-Jarba's office, later said the coalition is ready to participate based on "positive signals" they have received on their demands for humanitarian corridors and the release of detainees. He said the coalition would convene to rethink its position if no concrete progress is made on those fronts. Senior Coalition member Louay Safi had said the U.S. and Russia have indicated they would try to get the Syrian government to open humanitarian corridors and release detainees.
Previous attempts to bring the two sides together have failed, mainly because of disputes over who should represent the opposition and the government, Assad's future role in the country, and whether Iran, Saudi Arabia and other regional powers should be at the table.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the government and opposition to help the Geneva conference succeed. He said a key goal would be the establishment of a transitional government with powers over the military and security forces.
The coalition, in a statement issued Tuesday, reiterated that there can be no role for Assad in any future transitional government. It also urged the international community to pressure Assad's government to secure humanitarian corridors so that aid can reach besieged opposition held areas of the country.
Assad's forces have blockaded some rebel-held areas, particularly around Damascus, preventing supplies, medicine and food from entering. The sieges have led to cases of famine, activists say. The Syrian government has repeatedly said it will not go to Geneva to hand over power, and has pushed offensives on several fronts in recent weeks that have strengthened its position ahead of the proposed talks.
Also Tuesday, the World Health Organization said it has discovered two additional cases of the highly contagious polio virus in Syria, bringing the total number of cases in the country to 17. It said the new cases are in Aleppo and in rural Damascus — far from where the first outbreak was detected in northeastern Syria.
Those cases were the first discovered in Syria in more than a decade. Following the outbreak, the U.N. began its largest polio vaccination campaign in the region's history, trying to vaccinate and re-vaccinate 20 million children.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.