Syrian government negotiators have arrived in Geneva to join United Nations-led peace talks aimed at ending nearly seven years of fighting.
The talks began Tuesday with U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura meeting with the opposition delegation. He said afterward the two sides would have a chance for direct negotiations in Geneva.
"We are going to offer it. We will see if this takes place. But we will be offering that," he said.
Syria's state-run SANA news agency said the delayed arrival for the government delegation was due to the opposition's demand that President Bashar al-Assad step down as part of any political transition.
That issue has lingered as a sticking point in years of U.N. attempts to get the government and rebels to agree on a roadmap for Syria's future.
De Mistura said ahead of the talks he believes it is possible for the two sides to narrow their differences as they negotiate under a framework approved by the U.N. Security Council that calls for a new constitution and elections; but, he reiterated his mediation team will not accept either side entering the talks with preconditions.
"This crisis, one of the worst in the history of the United Nations, now has the potential to move toward a genuine political process," the envoy said."We see the emergence of international consensus, and we must begin to stitch the process into concrete results, enabling Syrians to determine their own future freely."
University of New South Wales senior lecturer Anthony Billingsley said with the gains the Syrian military has made with the backing of Russia and Iran, rebel hopes of toppling Assad are not realistic at this point.
"Everybody apart from some of the opposition groups, and perhaps the U.S., has accepted that Assad need not necessarily go," Billingsley told VOA. "So there's a fundamental problem there if the Geneva talks are going to make any progress."
'Starve and surrender' strategy
The Syrian government, meanwhile, agreed Tuesday to a cease-fire in rebel-controlled Eastern Ghouta, according to de Mistura.
The town east of Damascus is among the last remaining opposition strongholds in Syria and one of four "de-escalation zones" that were established to reduce violence. Residents have been under siege by pro-Assad forces since mid-2013. In the past two weeks, the military has intensified its bombing of the area.
U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said Wednesday that he is "extremely worried" about severe food shortages there.
"Despite efforts made to reach them, only 100,000 people out of an estimated population of 400,000 in the enclave have received food assistance this year," he told Security Council members. "And those people are only getting occasional one-off deliveries."
"The available evidence suggests severe acute malnutrition rates among children in Eastern Ghouta have increased five-fold in the past 10 months," Lowcock warned. The U.N. Children's agency, UNICEF, says such rates this month in Eastern Ghouta are the highest recorded since the beginning of the nearly seven-year long war.
"The Syrian regime is pummeling a population of starving, desperate people," U.S. envoy Michele Sison told council members. "It's the latest version of the Assad regime's despicable starve and surrender strategy," she added, accusing the regime of seeking domination, not peace.
"Civilians in Eastern Ghouta are actually under an internal siege imposed by the different armed organizations present there and which are being supported by member states — by permanent members of this council," Syrian deputy U.N. Ambassador Mounzer Mounzer said, dismissing accusations against his government.
The fighting in Syria began after the government cracked down on peaceful anti-Assad protests in 2011, eventually leading to a multi-party conflict that has left more than 400,000 people dead and 13 million in need of humanitarian assistance.
Margaret Besheer and Victor Beattie contributed to this report.