Time, Place Set for Syrian Peace Talks

Diplomacy is reigning strong this week. A day after the announcement of a U.S.-Iran nuclear program deal, the United Nations announced Monday that the Syrian government and rebel groups will be holding peace talks early next year. The talks will mark the first time that the opposing factions will meet for face-to-face negotiations since the beginning of the grim Syrian civil war that has left tens of thousands dead. The international peace conference will be held on January 22nd in Geneva.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made the announcement Monday, saying the conference would be aimed at ending the three-year-old civil war. The talks hope to build on the June agreement, which would have the opposition and government set up a transitional governing body with full executive powers, in order to enable a peaceful transition in the country.

"We will go to Geneva with a mission of hope," Ban Ki-moon said. "The Geneva conference is the vehicle for a peaceful transition that fulfils the legitimate aspirations of all the Syrian people for freedom and dignity, and which guarantees safety and protection to all communities in Syria."

"[It would be] unforgivable not to seize this opportunity to bring an end to the suffering and destruction", he added.

It remains ambiguous which parties will attend — an issue that already postponed talks meant to be held this month. Russia is demanding Syria's ally Iran be in attendance, while Washington is dead set against it. But the recent diplomatic developments in Iranian-U.S. relations may have helped ease that stumbling block. Syria mediator Lakhdar Brahimi — who met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif this weekend — has in fact been trying to group together various powers since May, and was hoping that the peace conference would be held in mid-December. He is scheduled to announce the invitees in a news conference later today, but already U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has confirmed he'll be there.

A spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition has already told Al Jazeera that the group will only attend if the Syrian government agrees to release its prisoners and remove Assad from power in the new transitional government — which is, let's face it, not that likely.

The news comes a day after a London-based Oxford Research Group think tank released horrifying figures regarding the number of children who have died in the Syrian conflict. According to the report, over 11,000 children have been killed over the last three years — hundreds of them were targeted by snipers. All 1,420 victims were aged 17 and under; 764 were summarily executed. More than a hundred, including infants as young as one year old, were tortured.

“This grim and terrible record shows why a sustainable peace, not more bombs and bullets, is the only way to guarantee the safety of children,” said Hamit Dardagan, co-author of the report.

Let's hope the January talks do just that.