Geneva peace talks started as Syrian negotiators arrived

Syrian negotiators arrived separately to meet U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura in Geneva on Thursday in a low-key start to the first U.N.-led peace talks in almost a year.

Government negotiator Bashar al-Ja’afari, Syria’s ambassador to the U.N. in New York, and lead opposition negotiator Nasr al-Hariri arrived separately at the U.N. office in Geneva, resuming negotiations that have been on hold since April 2016.

The scope of the talks has been cut down to core political questions since last year, after a new initiative by Russia, Turkey and Iran took thorny military issues off the Geneva agenda and transferred them to a separate process in the Kazakh capital Astana.

Previous attempts to negotiate an end to the almost six-year-old conflict collapsed as violence escalated, especially around the city of Aleppo, which is now totally under the control of forces loyal to Syria’s government.

The Astana talks have ushered in a shaky ceasefire which excludes hardline jihadist groups such as Islamic State.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said warplanes carried out air strikes on rebel-held areas in Deraa and Hama provinces on Thursday and insurgents fired rockets at government targets. But the overall level of violence in western Syria was lower than in previous days.

A western diplomat said the opposition was aware that eastern Ghouta, a besieged rebel area on the outskirts of Damascus, was vulnerable to a government offensive. But opposition negotiators were not going to buckle under military pressure and walk out of talks, as in previous rounds.

“They know that Ghouta’s in trouble,” the diplomat said.

De Mistura plans to discuss Syria’s future governance arrangements, the process for drafting a new constitution, and a schedule for elections under U.N. supervision, as mandated by a U.N. resolution.

He has declined to say whether he will try to unify opposition groups in a single delegation for direct talks with the government.

He plans to welcome the delegations later on Thursday in the presence of diplomats, raising the prospect that he might bring the warring sides together in one room.

“The plan is to have some kind of opening ceremony in which he welcomes the parties,” the Western diplomat said.

Geneva talks in April last year never brought the negotiators together. Instead, de Mistura met the delegations in rotation, seeking points of common ground.

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