New round of Syria talks opens in Geneva

New round of Syria talks opens in Geneva

GENEVA
New round of Syria talks opens in Geneva

Talks aimed at ending the war in Syria restarted on Nov. 28 with the Damascus regime enforcing its will, warning the United Nations it would not tolerate any discussion of President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster from power.  

Assad’s negotiators did not travel to Geneva for the opening of the UN-backed talks, delivering another blow to the negotiations that have achieved little through seven previous rounds.  

Opposition representatives, united in one delegation for the first time, were scheduled to meet UN mediator Staffan de Mistura on Nov. 28.    

After arriving in Geneva late on Nov. 27, rebel delegation chief Nasr al-Hariri told reporters that his camp was still insisting on Assad’s removal as part of any peace deal, defying calls for moderation.

Damascus had initially refused to confirm it would attend the talks with the opposition maintaining its hardline stance on the president, but the UN and Syria’s official Sana news agency have announced that government representatives will arrive on Nov. 29.

But before agreeing to come, Assad’s envoys secured key concessions from de Mistura.

“During intense discussions over the last two days, de Mistura pledged to the government delegation that there would not be any... discussion of the Riyadh statement,” an opposition text that references Assad’s ouster, a source close to the government told AFP.

Keeping the Assad issue off the table may also suit de Mistura, who has said he wants this round to focus on a new constitution for Syria and UN-supervised elections.The UN envoy had voiced hope the coming round would mark the first “real negotiation” on a possible deal to end the six-year war which has claimed more than 340,000 lives and left Syria in ruin.     

Well ahead of the talks, de Mistura had warned the opposition that intransigence on the Assad issue might no longer be tenable.     

In September, he said the opposition needed to be “realistic” and accept that “they didn’t win the war,” a statement supported by facts on the ground.   

Meanwhile Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said on Nov. 27 that the “Astana process” to revive the Syrian peace process, led by Russia, Turkey and Iran, is working alongside the UN’s long-running Geneva discussions rather than competing with them.

“This process is not competing with the Geneva process,” Yıldırım said during an address at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London.

Astana peace talks, trilateral meetings, (are) not an alternative to Geneva, what we try to do is prepare infrastructure for solution(s)... in Geneva,” he said.  

“We have achieved certain progress in terms of de-escalation and reducing the tensions in the country and moving toward a cease fire,” Yıldırım added at his IISS talk.

But the Turkish prime minister reiterated his country’s determination to see Bashar al-Assad leave power.

“Look how things evolved in Syria, who caused Syria to be in the situation that it is today -- it all happened because of the regime, because of Assad,” he said.

He added in the long-term, “Assad cannot possibly survive in Syria, we have to accept this.”  Backed by Russia’s decisive military support, Assad’s government has regained control of 55 percent of the country, including major cities including Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama.

The rest is carved up between rebel factions, jihadists and Kurdish forces.

The decision last week by Syrian opposition groups to send a single delegation to Geneva raised hopes of a possible breakthrough.     

The new rebel negotiating team includes members of the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC), which insists on Assad’s departure, as well as representatives of groups based in Moscow and Cairo that have a more moderate stance on the president.     

But without a formal notification from the rebel side that its position had softened, the talks may remain deadlocked.

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