UN envoy announces start of talks over Syria peace deal

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Ban Ki-moon calls on all parties to put Syrian people ‘at the heart of their discussions’

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura on Sunday announced the opening today of separate talks with government and opposition delegations aimed at ending the Syrian conflict.

Following a courtesy visit to the hotel of the Riyadh-based High Negotiations Committee (HNC), Mr de Mistura said, “I am optimistic and determined because it’s an historic occasion not to be missed.”

Members of the government delegation and independent opposition groups arrived on Friday, the day Mr de Mistura had set for talks to begin.

The HNC delegation – which reached Geneva on Saturday night – called for the release of prisoners and a halt to sieges and air strikes on insurgent-held areas.

Government ‘crimes’

Spokesman Salim Muslet said these demands were not preconditions for talks but warned the HNC would withdraw if government “crimes” continued. Other members of the delegation called for implementation of demands before talks, creating confusion.

The government and the HNC have accused each other of a lack of “seriousness” about ending the war which has taken 250,000 lives and driven half of all Syrians from their homes.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon called on “all parties to put the people of Syria at the heart of their discussions, and above partisan interests. Civilians, including children and women, have been bearing the brunt of this conflict.”

He asked for an “end to the fighting, the sieges and the other terrible human rights abuses that have characterised this war”.

US secretary of state John Kerry warned the conflict could engulf the region if a political solution was not found and called for urgent deliveries of food and medicine.

HNC demands are intended to exert pressure on Russia and Iran to ensure the government concedes but the HNC is unlikely to receive a positive response unless patrons of anti-government armed groups – Saudi Arabia, Turkey the US and Europe – insist these groups halt attacks and grant humanitarian access to government-controlled cities and towns.

Quid pro quo

Since the HNC contains representatives of armed insurgent factions – Army of Islam, Ahrar al-Sham and Southern Command – they could be required to reciprocate, resulting in ceasefires in areas not held by Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra, branded “terrorist” groups and excluded from the talks.

Syria’s envoy to the talks, UN ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari, said the suicide bomb attack in Damascus yesterday that killed 60 had taken place while crucial negotiations were taking place, suggesting the aim was to torpedo the Geneva effort.

The UN seeks to launch six months of talks, beginning with ceasefires between the government and all insurgent factions except Islamic State and Nusra, and formation of a national unity government charged with writing a new constitution and holding elections by August 2017.

 

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