Prospects downplayed for Syria peace talks billed as crucial

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Associated Press

Posted on January 21, 2014 at 4:02 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jan 21 at 4:34 PM

MONTREUX, Switzerland (AP) — Diplomats are trying to smooth out some last-minute hang-ups in advance of a peace conference on Syria set to open in Switzerland tomorrow.

They've also been playing down expectations for the talks, after building up the importance of the conference for weeks.

Syria's Western-backed opposition and President Bashar Assad's handpicked representatives have never spoken face-to-face and it's not at all clear how much either side really wants an end to the war.

The Syrian National Coalition says it wants the conference to establish a transitional government to replace Assad and "in which killers and criminals do not participate."

But Assad is pointing to the rise of Islamic militants elsewhere in the Arab world to temper Western enthusiasm for the rebels. He has said he has no intention of stepping down and may run again as president later this year.

On the ground, fighting has killed more than 130,000 people and scattered millions of refugees around the region.

While a comprehensive end to Syria's civil war does not appear likely at this conference, Germany's foreign minister says: "We must take small steps."

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