WASHINGTON/LONDON - U.N. talks aimed at ending the five-year-old Syrian civil war started Friday in Geneva, with the main opposition group fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad belatedly saying it would send a delegation to the gathering.
The U.N. special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, met first with the Damascus delegation, led by Syria's ambassador to the U.N., Bashar Jaafari. A spokeswoman for the U.N. diplomat said he would later meet with other participants in the talks, including civil society representatives affected by the conflict that has killed more than a quarter-million people and left millions displaced.
U.N. organizers say they are conducting indirect proximity talks, meetings in separate rooms, aiming to lay the groundwork for negotiations to end the civil war. It is the U.N.'s first attempt at Syrian peace talks in two years.
The United States had urged the Saudi-backed opposition group, the High Negotiations Committee, to accept the "historic opportunity" to join the talks without preconditions. At first, the group said it would stay away after its demands for an end to airstrikes on civilians and a lifting of the siege in Syria were not met. It relented later Friday and said it would send a delegation of 30 to 35 people to Geneva for "discussions," not "negotiations."
The war pits the Assad government against the rebels — both moderates and militants. Both the government and the moderate opposition have, at the same time, been battling extremists that include Islamic State militants.
The U.N. did not invite the Islamic State group because the U.N. considers IS a terrorist organization. Kurds who control much of northeast Syria are also missing from the talks, at the demand of Turkey, which says they are aligned with Kurdish fighters who have waged a 30-year battle with Ankara for autonomy in southeastern Turkey.
The talks are part of a plan outlined by the U.N. that calls for an 18-month timetable for transition in Syria, including drafting a new constitution and elections.
Confusion over who should represent the opposition, and the opposition’s demands for its conditions to be met prior to the start of talks, showed how difficult the road to peace will be.
In the final hours before the start of talks Friday, organizers worked to smooth differences enough to get all parties to attend.
De Mistura: 'Talks cannot fail'
In a video message to the Syrian people Thursday night, de Mistura said the talks “cannot fail.” He said five years of the conflict have been “too much” and that the Syrian people have had “enough.”
Pressure to enter into negotiations is largely external, with the United States, the European Union, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia all pushing for a solution.
In the West, that urgency has been fueled by terrorist attacks in Paris and the United States, and by the migrant crisis. Four million people, largely from Syria, are expected to arrive in western Europe this year.
The battles in Syria have intensified since September, when Russia began airstrikes in support of Assad, countering the efforts of opposition groups supported by the United States, some members of the European Union, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
The complicated backdrop makes the peace process especially difficult.
With Russian support, Assad’s forces have made significant gains. Analysts say the government has little incentive to negotiate with an opposition that is weak and fractured.
Nadim Shehadi, director of the Fares Center at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston, is pessimistic.
“We are pressuring the opposition to prove that they are united, coherent, that they have a strong leadership and that they have a vision, and a policy and a certain consensus on what the future will be, and I don’t think they do, I don’t think they will in the near future, and I don’t think they can,” he said.
The talks had been set to begin last Monday but were delayed to Friday by discussions on who should represent the opposition.
WATCH: Syrian Civil War explained