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Who should be at table for Syria peace talks? UN seeks longer invite list.

Preparing the invitation list to next month's peace conference on Syria is a ticklish matter for the UN's special envoy. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are influential, on opposite sides, in Syria's civil war. But the US has conditions for including Tehran.

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Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks during an interview with Fox News channel, in Damascus, Syria, in Sept.

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The United Nation’s special envoy for Syria is pressing ahead to organize a peace conference to try to bring the devastating civil war to a close. But even if the invitation list can be worked out in coming days, it is virtually certain that some major players in the conflict won’t be at the table.

That means the fighting in Syria is likely to continue, even if the late-January conference yields a compromise between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the mainline moderate opposition, who will be in attendance, regional analysts say. Over nearly three years, the civil war has resulted in 125,000 deaths and perhaps the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian crisis.

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Lakhdar Brahimi, the Syria envoy for both the UN and the Arab League, is urging that Iran and Saudi Arabia be invited to the conference, in realpolitik recognition of the key roles that both are playing in the conflict – Iran on the side of Mr. Assad, and Saudi Arabia in the opposition’s corner.

But even if Mr. Brahimi can persuade the United States to OK Iran’s participation – the US has long said that Iran should be allowed to attend only if it supports the conference goal of a political transition in Syria to a new, democratic government – some crucial players in the conflict would still be outside the tent.

Under no circumstances will the Islamist extremist groups gaining ground in Syria be part of the international negotiations. So the challenge they present to both Syria and to the region will remain, no matter what happens at the conference, regional experts note.

After more than a year of off-and-on planning for a Syria peace conference, Brahimi announced last month that the gathering, nicknamed “Geneva II” in diplomatic parlance, will begin Jan. 22 in Geneva. (Actually there are even questions as to whether the conference can take place in Geneva, because a long-planned World Economic Forum and a major watch convention already have hotels booked up during the conference dates.)

Brahimi plans to hold another round of meetings in Geneva Dec. 20, with the US and Russia, which along with the UN are cosponsors of the conference, and then with other regional powers. At that time, he hopes to be able to announce the invitation list, UN officials say.

“It looks like we’re getting to the point where Mr. Brahimi should be in a position at that time to announce who is to be invited to the conference,” says Farhan Haq, a spokesman in the office of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. “The most important thing is that there be one [Syrian] government delegation, and one opposition delegation, because in the end it’s the Syrians themselves who must agree on a way forward” out of the conflict.

Those two Syrian sides have agreed to attend – although kicking and screaming. The Syrian government says it will send a delegation but has no intention of accepting any outcome that includes Assad's departure from power. The main moderate opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, says it will attend, but it insists that a transitional government cannot include Assad, and it sees no place for Iran at the conference table.

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At the same time, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – the principal opposition fighting force that is a member of the national coalition but doesn’t always work in tandem with it – says it will not attend.

Despite UN efforts to secure a cease-fire in the run-up to the conference, FSA troops will not stop fighting, lest government forces take advantage of a truce to advance military, says the group's leader, Gen. Salim Idriss.

Assad also has reasons to be leery of the conference and its organizers. The UN, through its chief human rights official, on Monday made its most direct implication yet of Assad in “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” during the civil war. “Massive evidence” on hand suggests responsibility for the crimes rises to “the highest level of government, including the head of state,” said UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay. She later retreated a bit to emphasize only the “highest level of government” and added that names of those considered responsible for specific crimes will remain confidential pending a possible future prosecution.

Syrian government officials dismissed Ms. Pillay’s comments as “nonsense.” UN officials, for their part, shifted to damage-control mode to head off any setbacks for Brahimi’s conference efforts. “The issue of accountability will have to be addressed at some point,” says Mr. Haq, “but right now the focus is on the conference and ending the fighting.”     

Some pro-government powers voice concerns that representatives of Syria’s radical Islamists could join the peace conference through the opposition delegation. But the greater threat is that the radicals, who have no interest in a conference designed by world powers to deliver a democratic, pluralistic, and secular transitional government, are growing and consolidating their power in Syria, some analysts say. 

More than a half-dozen Islamist militias and existing militant umbrella groups recently united to form the Islamic Front (IF), bringing their combined forces of as many as 60,000 fighters under one command, notes Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who specializes in jihadist groups.

While the IF does not include groups the US has designated as terrorist organizations, such as the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front, it rejects principles and goals that the US supports, Mr. Zelin says.

The IF “refuses to participate in Geneva II, and it rejects democracy and minority rights,” Zelin notes in a recent post on the Washington Institute website. The IF charter calls for an Islamic state ruled by sharia law and sees no place for civil government or “human legislation,” he adds.

The rise of Islamist groups in Syria means that, by the time the Geneva peace conference rolls around in late January, the only realistic US option may be to swallow some accommodation of Assad – and what remains of the state his family built – as part of any deal to end Syria’s war.

As some Syria analysts note, signs of that accommodation have already surfaced in the agreement to rid Syria of its chemical weapons, and in less strident rhetoric from President Obama concerning Assad’s future place in Syria.