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Syria's Chemical Deal May Strengthen Assad's Hand for Peace Talks

Syrian opposition fighters prepare to fire a homemade cannon during combat with government forces last Wednesday in the city of Aleppo. The United Nations on Monday announced plans to hold a Jan. 22 international conference on ending Syria's civil war, an outcome that could help facilitate destruction of the country's chemical arsenal (Nur Halab/AFP/Getty Images). Syrian opposition fighters prepare to fire a homemade cannon during combat with government forces last Wednesday in the city of Aleppo. The United Nations on Monday announced plans to hold a Jan. 22 international conference on ending Syria's civil war, an outcome that could help facilitate destruction of the country's chemical arsenal (Nur Halab/AFP/Getty Images).

Syrian President Bashar Assad's agreement to acknowledge and disband his chemical arsenal may have strengthened the embattled leader's political hand as an early-2014 date was set for peace talks on ending his nation's ongoing civil war, the Financial Times reported on Monday.

Assad supporters are also citing the growing participation in the Syrian conflict of al-Qaeda's Iraq branch as bolstering sympathy for his regime's plight.

"We have full confidence that people in western Europe, in the U.S., have started to understand that in Syria we are facing terrorism, confronting terrorism on behalf of the entire world," deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad said in a Damascus interview with the newspaper.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday announced plans to convene a Jan. 22 international meeting on ending Syria's civil war, but he provided few specifics on who would take part in the discussion, Reuters reported.

"At long last and for the first time, the Syrian government and opposition will meet at the negotiating table instead of the battlefield," the U.N. chief said in a statement to journalists. He announced the timing as Russian and U.S. diplomats attempted to hammer out additional details for the talks in a private session with Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint special representative from the Arab League and United Nations, Agence France-Presse reported.

The Western-backed Syrian National Coalition has agreed to take part in the planned meeting, though some Islamic rebel factions have remained steadfast in their opposition to any negotiations with Assad. More than 100,000 people have died in the nation's civil war since fighting began in 2011.

It was undecided whether Iran would receive an invitation, potentially providing a boost to Moscow's ally in Damascus, Reuters reported. The British Foreign Office and a French envoy said their governments would welcome Iranian participation only if Tehran agreed to pursue a deal in accordance with terms developed in Geneva in June 2012.

Ending the Syrian conflict could simplify efforts to transport chemical-warfare materials slated for removal from the country by an international mission to eliminate Assad's chemical arms, or potentially even allow for their destruction in place. Damascus assented to the disposal project after an August nerve-gas attack raised the possibility of U.S. military strikes on regime targets.

However, no European government has agreed to host destruction of the arsenal. International discussion recently returned to the idea of destroying the deadly arms inside of Syria -- or possibly aboard ships at sea.

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