A Syrian government delegation will arrive in Geneva on Wednesday for the first UN-sponsored peace talks in eight months after Russia brokered a deal to keep the future of Bashar al-Assad off the initial agenda.
Damascus had threatened to boycott the talks over the demands of the Syrian opposition that Assad step aside as a precondition for its involvement.
The Geneva talks received a further boost on Tuesday when Russia announced it had postponed a Syrian dialogue conference in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, an event seen by the west as a rival to the UN-sponsored process.
The Sochi conference was put on hold until at least February over Turkish objections to Russia inviting groups linked to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which it sees as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey’s south-east.
A breakthrough in the Geneva talks is thought unlikely, but there are modest grounds for hope, including agreement on a unified opposition delegation following a meeting of rival groups in Saudi Arabia.
Dr Yahya Aridi, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Commission, said: “The Assad regime continues to inflict brutal suffering on the people while procrastinating and making excuses about the diplomacy in Geneva. It no longer has the pretext that the opposition is fragmented. We are one. We are ready to negotiate directly with the other side.”
The revamped delegation, endorsed by the EU high representative, Federica Mogherini, has edged towards an implicit admission that Assad need not stand down at the start of a political transition. One diplomat said: “For the moment it is about getting both sides to talk about other issues than Assad.”
Many western powers now accept that Russian and Iranian-led successes on the battlefield since Moscow began its military intervention in September 2015 require Assad to be entitled to stand in any fresh presidential elections, so long as a new constitution is agreed and the UN can oversee free and fair elections.
The Syrian opposition delegation held its first meeting with the UN Syria special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, on Tuesday.
The new head of the opposition delegation, Nasr Hariri, a cardiologist who has attended previous talks, had told a news conference in Geneva on Monday night that he was aiming for Assad’s removal as a result of negotiations.
The move was described as “very alarming” by Russia’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, Alexey Borodavkin. He urged western diplomats “to bring the opposition down to earth as their position is not in line with the real situation”.
Russia appears to have won an agreement that the opposition’s Riyadh agreement, which demands Assad’s resignation at the start of a transition period, will not form part of the opening UN negotiations, making it easier for the Syrian government team to attend.
But there is no guarantee the opposition delegation will stay off Assad’s future and Russia also says demands for Iranian militia units to leave Syria are “unrealistic”.
Despite de-escalation agreements, a Syrian air force onslaught has continued against rebel-held areas, especially in the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, where 69 people have been killed and hundreds wounded in the last two weeks.
Assad forces claim they are attacking areas controlled by jihadists that are not party to any ceasefire. De Mistura said on Tuesday that Russia had negotiated a ceasefire, but he will wait to see if it is implemented on the ground.
A rare convoy carrying food and medical aid entered eastern Ghouta on Tuesday, the UN said.
Source: the guardian