GENEVA - An international peace conference for Syria will begin on 22 January 2014, the first direct talks between President Bashar al-Assad's government and rebels seeking to overthrow him, the United Nations said on Monday.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, said the goal was to agree on a mutually acceptable transitional administration as well as the other elements of an outline peace plan drafted by the Western powers and Russia at Geneva in June last year.
"It is a huge opportunity for peace that shouldn't be wasted," Lakhdar Brahimi, Ban's special envoy for Syria, told a news conference in the Swiss city, where the long delayed face-to-face talks should take place in eight weeks.
Syrians and diplomats have few illusions about how hard it will be to end a civil war that has killed over 100,000 people since 2011, driven over a third of the population from their homes and divided the country among rival and often religiously driven factions with an array of competing foreign sponsors.
But a day after Assad's regional ally Iran cut a deal on its nuclear programme with the United States and other world powers to ease fears of a wider war in the Middle East, UN officials spoke of a chance to start staunching the bloodshed.
It remained unclear whether Iran would attend - nor is it clear who will represent the divided Syrian opposition - although US officials raised doubts about Tehran's participation.
"There are many challenges ahead and no one should underestimate the difficulties," said a spokesman for US President Barack Obama as he welcomed a date for the talks.
"The United States has long made clear that there is no military solution to the violence in Syria," he added.
Russia, a vital supplier to Syria, which has shielded Assad from Western demands for UN sanctions and from rebel demands that he step down before negotiations can start, again blamed the opposition for holding up the peace conference.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, fresh from a weekend working with Lavrov on the Iran nuclear deal at Geneva, said in a statement, "We are well aware that the obstacles on the road to a political solution are many, and we will enter the Geneva conference on Syria with our eyes wide open."
After so much blood has been spilled since demonstrations for democracy began during the Arab Spring, many on either side of Syria's divide see only outright victory guaranteeing their own survival. The deep engagement of neighbouring powers in the conflict, notably Shi'ite Iran behind Assad and Sunni Saudi Arabia behind the rebels, has also complicated efforts to defuse it.
Kerry and Brahimi said the presence of Iranian officials at the Syria conference - something Moscow supports and Washington has so far opposed - was yet to be decided.
But US officials said Washington's position remained that Iran should not attend because it has not signed on to the "Geneva 1" framework. One of its core elements is that a future Syrian government must be formed by "mutual consent" of the authorities and the opposition, a stance the United States says means Assad cannot stay in power.
Brahimi urged the warring parties to try to start taking the heat out of the conflict, for example by freeing prisoners. But asked whether he aimed for a ceasefire for the start of the talks, he said, "Being realistic, a lot of the things that need to happen will happen after the conference starts, not before."
He said he hoped both Syrian sides would name delegations before the end of the year. Assad, battling to extend a ruling dynasty established by his late father four decades ago, is expected to dispatch trusted aides to speak for him.
For the opposition, the task is complicated by disputes among rebels fighting on the ground, including hardline Islamists, and exile politicians backed by Western powers.
On Sunday, Brahimi met leaders of the Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella body that has been disowned by many rebel commanders. The UN envoy said on Monday that the SNC would play an important role in forming the delegation.