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Syria Talks Open; Focus on Key Issues Expected Monday

  • Pamela Dockins

FILE - U.N. mediator for Syria Staffan de Mistura attends peace talks at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Feb. 1, 2016.

FILE - U.N. mediator for Syria Staffan de Mistura attends peace talks at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Feb. 1, 2016.

United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura says “substantive” talks on a political transition in Syria are expected to begin on Monday and will not last beyond March 24.

He commented from Geneva on Wednesday as the second round of proximity talks between the Syrian government and the opposition formally opened - although the key players had not yet arrived.

The U.N. attributed some delays to logistical arrangements and said delegations were expected to arrive over the course of the next few days.

When the talks are fully under way, the focus will be on “new governance, constitution and elections, the future elections in 18 months’ time,” de Mistura told reporters.

He said humanitarian and cease-fire issues would be discussed, ahead of next week's expected start of talks on a political transition.

In a statement to VOA, the main Syrian opposition group said it would be a no-show for discussions Wednesday.

"HNC [High Negotiations Committee] is discussing whether to attend the talks this week," said a spokesperson for the group.

The Syrian government also indicated that it will not join until later, an indication that the proximity talks may not be fully under way until March 14.

FILE - Residents work on fixing a damaged shop in the town of Darat Izza, province of Aleppo, Syria, Feb. 28, 2016.

FILE - Residents work on fixing a damaged shop in the town of Darat Izza, province of Aleppo, Syria, Feb. 28, 2016.

'Not disconcerting'

The State Department said it is not overly concerned about the staggered resumption of talks, a situation that is similar to what occurred when talks were launched in February.

“It certainly is not disconcerting to us,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby. “What matters is that they do resume and we do get some dialogue going.”

Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford also said the exact resumption date is not a big issue, but he added the Syrian opposition could be swayed to pull back from talks if a current cease-fire erodes.

“I would be more concerned about whether the cessation of hostilities holds,” said Ford, an analyst at the Middle East Institute.

He said another concern is whether the Syrian government will approve allowing more humanitarian convoys to enter besieged areas.

Men store bags of flour unloaded from a Red Crescent aid convoy in the rebel held besieged town of Jesreen, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, March 7, 2016.

Men store bags of flour unloaded from a Red Crescent aid convoy in the rebel held besieged town of Jesreen, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, March 7, 2016.

Focus on aid, cease-fire

A U.N. spokesman said de Mistura on Wednesday will focus on discussing humanitarian and cease-fire issues with representatives.

The U.N.-facilitated proximity talks got off to a rocky start in early February before bogging down, partly due to opposition complaints of Syrian and Russian airstrikes that appeared to target Syrian rebels instead of Islamic State militants and other terrorists.

Later in the month, the 17-nation International Syria Support Group crafted a plan for a partial cessation of hostilities that took effect February 27.

Although the Syrian regime and the opposition have both reported violations, the overall level of fighting has diminished as a result of the truce, which does not include terrorist groups.

The U.N.-hosted talks between the government and the opposition are designed for the two sides to reach an agreement on a political transition in Syria, a move that could help end that country's five-year civil war, which has resulted in 250,000 deaths and left millions of civilians displaced.

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