Syria’s warring sides brought together for Geneva talks

The two sides will not meet face-to-face to begin with.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s special Syria envoy, said on Wednesday he was “not expecting a breakthrough”.

The opposition is insisting that the fate of President Bashar al-Assad is on the agenda – something the government has refused to discuss.

At least 300,000 people have been killed since the war began in 2011. More than 4.8m have fled the country and a further 6.3m have been displaced inside Syria itself.

While hopes of a breakthrough at the talks are low, much has changed since the last round broke down in April 2016.

The rebels lost their key bastion of East Aleppo to government forces in December and a nationwide ceasefire (barring certain jihadist groups) has been largely holding for the past several weeks.

The ceasefire was orchestrated by Turkey, one of the main backers of the rebels, and Russia, Syria’s ally. Both powers have also sponsored recent rounds of talks between the government and rebels in Kazakhstan, aimed at shoring up the truce.

Any major violation of the fragile ceasefire could derail the process, UN diplomats have warned.

As the negotiations began, Syrian warplanes carried out air strikes in Deraa and Hama provinces, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) monitoring group said.

Mr de Mistura said Russia had asked the Syrian government to halt its aerial bombardment during the talks, and the SOHR said the level of violence on Thursday was less than in recent days.

‘Political transition’

The Geneva talks follow weeks of difficult negotiations in preparation. The two sides remain far apart on key issues, including over what should even be discussed.

Mr de Mistura said the agenda of negotiations would be based on a 2015 Security Council resolution endorsing a peace process, with the following aims:

Establishing credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance

Setting schedule and process for drafting new constitution

Holding free and fair elections within 18 months pursuant to new constitution administered under UN observation

The resolution called for “formal negotiations on [the] political transition” in Syria – a long-standing framework for peace backed by the UN.

The form of political transition however differs widely between the warring sides. The opposition insists it must include President Assad’s departure, while the Syrian government says only elections can decide Mr Assad’s future.

“Am I expecting a breakthrough? No, I am not expecting a breakthrough,” Mr de Mistura told reporters on Wednesday, adding that he hoped the meeting could maintain “a very proactive momentum” for further talks.

The opposition is represented at the talks by the High Negotiations Committee – an umbrella group of armed and political factions. The government delegation is led by Syria’s UN ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, a veteran of previous rounds of peace talks.

Source: Angola Press News Agency