Kerry to meet Saudi, UAE officials on unifying Syrian opposition


US Secretary of State John Kerry was set to hold talks with senior Emirati and Saudi officials in Abu Dhabi on Monday to find ways to bring Syrian opposition groups together at a conference that will be hosted by Saudi Arabia next month.

The hastily-arranged meetings in the UAE capital between Kerry, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir will discuss how to unify opponents of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, a senior State Department official said.

Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China – met earlier this month in Vienna, where they agreed plans to launch formal talks between Assad’s government and its opponents by January 1.

Divisions among Syrian opposition factions, some backed by the West and others by Gulf Arab states, are often cited as one of many obstacles facing diplomatic efforts to end the conflict.

Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab states have long been major backers of the insurgency against Assad, whom they say must leave power.

The opposition includes the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition, a political body, and a wide array of rebel groups that are not united in a single military structure and do not answer to any of the political factions.

The Syrian conflict began in 2011 with protests against four decades of Assad family rule. About a quarter of a million people have been killed and 11 million – half the total population – have been driven from their homes.

Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled to Europe in the past few months, which has led to increased efforts by Washington and others to find a political solution to end the war.