After a day of progress in resolving some of the issues the main Syrian opposition group wants addressed to participate in peace talks, the U.N. envoy for Syria is holding more separate sessions Monday with opposition figures and representatives of the government
Opposition delegates have said they plan to stay in Geneva for at least three more days as U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura works to push along the long-awaited peace effort.
De Mistura told reporters Sunday he is “optimistic and determined” the opposition will join the peace process that got under way Friday, five days behind schedule and with opposition representatives boycotting the first day.
A spokesman for the Syrian opposition said the discussions on Sunday were “encouraging and positive” concerning humanitarian issues, referring to the group’s demands for an end to airstrikes on civilians and the lifting of sieges that are preventing humanitarian aid from reaching rebel-held areas.
Earlier in the day, the group said it was in Geneva to meet with U.N. officials and not to enter into negotiations, even indirect ones, with the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
The proximity talks are meant to lay the groundwork for eventual direct negotiations.
With no face-to-face encounters scheduled between Assad government officials and opposition representatives in this round, the plan is for the U.N. envoy to consult with each side separately and shuttle between the two to relay proposals and positions.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged the Syrian government and the opposition to push for an end to the nearly 5-year-old conflict that has killed a 250,000 people and displaced millions.
Kerry described the war in Syria as “an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe unmatched since World War II.”
"I appeal to both sides to make the most of this moment, to seize the opportunity for serious negotiations, to negotiate in good faith with the goal of making concrete measurable progress in the days immediately ahead,'' Kerry said.
Representatives of the opposition group, the High Negotiations Committee, arrived in Geneva Saturday, saying they would engage only in talks with U.N. officials, but not negotiations.
The Saudi-backed group has been meeting in Riyadh and demanded a halt to airstrikes by Syrian government and Russian forces on civilians, and the lifting of sieges on rebel-held areas, before it would enter into negotiations.
Delegates decided to travel to Switzerland only after receiving assurances their demands would be heard.
"We only came to Geneva after written commitments on the fact that there would be serious progress on humanitarian issues," spokeswoman Basma Kodmani told reporters.
The Syrian government delegation Sunday accused the opposition of undermining the talks.
“Those who speak about preconditions are coming to this meeting in order to derail it and is not concerned about a Syrian-Syrian dialogue,'' the head of the Syrian delegation, Bashar Jaafari, said.
After Friday’s shaky start, U.N. envoy de Mistura was determined to make this round succeed.
“It is an historic occasion not to be missed,” he said, as he left a Geneva hotel after meeting with the opposition.
The Islamic State extremist group was not invited to the Geneva peace talks because it, along with the al-Nusra Front, is designated by the United Nations as a terrorist organization.
The government of Syrian President Assad considers all rebel groups that want to depose Assad terrorists, but agreed to proximity talks with some opposition groups the international community recognizes as moderate.
A senior Syrian government official on Sunday said Assad would never accept the inclusion of Ahrar al-Sham and the Army of Islam groups.
The statement presents a possible snag for the talks because many in the moderate opposition believe both groups eventually should be included, while the Syrian government and its Russian backers see them as extremists with whom Damascus should not negotiate.