LONDON, October 23 (Associated Press, by Lara Jakes, Cassandra Vinograd) - Moderate opposition leaders seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad from power have not yet committed to negotiations to create a new government, America's top diplomat said Tuesday, casting new doubt on flagging hopes to end the civil war as quickly as possible.
A refusal by the Syrian National Coalition to participate in the diplomatic talks would further delay attempts by most of Syria's regional neighbors and the West to stop the bloodshed that has so far killed 100,000 people over the last 2½ years.
It also could boost the legitimacy of Assad, who after stonewalling has told allies he is prepared to negotiate - despite a near-certainty that he would be removed from power as a result of the talks.
At the close of diplomatic meetings on the issue in London, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he remains optimistic that the coalition would agree, potentially as soon as next week, to participate in talks tentatively set for late November in Geneva with members of Assad's government.
But he said the Western-backed Syrian opposition members have "to make up their own mind." "None of us are going to pre-judge or pre-condition what they will choose to do in that process," Kerry said after the meetings of the diplomats from 11 Western and Mideast nations who are trying to broker a Syrian settlement.
Kerry's comments came after he met with the coalition's president, Ahmad al-Jarba, who attended the discussions. Al-Jarba told reporters that the coalition does not want to negotiate with Assad directly, nor agree to negotiations without a set timetable.
He also said he wanted only the SNC at the table to represent opposition - not extremist groups who have joined against Assad. And he objected to Iran's participation.
The diplomats also released a communique outlining goals for the negotiations' outcome. They include a mandatory requirement that Assad and his close aides will have no role in a new Syrian government.
Assad has shown no sign he is ready to give up power, and declined in an interview this week to rule out running for re-election next year. He also questioned the legitimacy of the opposition and said the factors needed for a proposed peace conference to succeed do not yet exist.
"Who are the groups that will participate? What is their relation with the Syrian people? Do they represent the Syrian people or they represent the country that made them?" Assad said during an interview with Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV. "There are many questions about the conference."
The process of removing Assad from office has been frustrated partly by a rise of violent extremists who have joined rebel groups and opposition leaders who are working to oust him.
U.S. officials say the extremists, including groups linked to al-Qaida, may instead have hurt negotiations and jeopardized foreign support. They argue it is difficult to identify moderate rebel groups and ensure that the weapons they are supplied with will not fall into al-Qaida hands.
Extremist groups, including the al-Qaida-linked cross-border Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, have damaged the credibility of the fractured opposition to Assad and drawn battle lines among once-allied rebel forces. As a result, that likely has boosted Assad's confidence to resist yielding at the negotiating table.
In comments to reporters after the talks, British Foreign Secretary William Hague has emphasized Western leaders' support for Syria's moderate opposition and stressed that efforts are being made to bring all sides to a negotiating table in Geneva.
Hague said the focus is on securing a transitional government for Syria, and said the opposition has the full support of Britain, the U.S. and the other leaders gathered in London. He urged the opposition to commit itself fully to talks.
Moderate groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, a loose coalition of rebel brigades, are in disarray. Last week, 65 rebel groups, including many linked to the FSA, announced they would not recognize the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition in what was widely seen as a rebuke to the West for failing to send more support.
It's also feared that Assad's recent willingness to let United Nations inspectors examine his government's chemical weapons stockpile - a cache that earlier this year he denied even existed - has helped his own credibility and worldwide image.