- Assad's opponents demanding immediate end to hostilities
- Russia's support for Damascus has tipped conflict in its favor
Talks to end five years of war in Syria got off to an inauspicious start on Friday as the main Saudi-backed opposition group stayed away, restating its demand that airstrikes against its forces should first end.
UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura met the delegation sent by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which is led by the country’s ambassador to the world body, Bashar Jaafari. Russia, a major ally of Assad which has been conducting airstrikes in Syria for almost four months, said it hoped the talks marked a “turning-point.”
The Syrian war has left Europe facing an escalated threat from militant attacks, and a growing refugee problem. The UN-sponsored negotiations, which have been held up by disagreement over who should represent Assad’s opponents, and by the rebel demands for an immediate cessation of hostilities, are envisaged as stretching over several months.
The Saudi-backed bloc, including major armed rebel factions, hasn’t committed to participating. Its chief coordinator, Riad Hijab, reiterated demands for an end to airstrikes and sieges of towns. “We are waiting for positive steps before settling our participation in Geneva 3,” he said in a website statement on Friday, referring to the latest round of Syria talks after two previous conferences in the Swiss city.
The talks are being held in a so-called “proximity” format, which will involve de Mistura shuttling between the government delegation and the two opposition factions. The UN special envoy is due to meet a separate, Moscow-friendly opposition delegation on Saturday.
The U.S. on Thursday urged the Saudi-sponsored opposition group to attend the negotiations. “This is really a historic opportunity for them to go to Geneva to propose serious, practical ways to implement a ceasefire and other confidence-building measures,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters. “And we still believe they should without preconditions.”
The peace efforts come as Assad’s forces, backed by Russian air power, are making progress against Islamic State militants as well as the rebel forces supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations.
Even if the talks do actually take place with the government and opposition, with neither side willing to make concessions, “that does not mean its prospects of success are very high.” said Dan Smith, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
The conflict has killed more than quarter of a million people and forced millions of others to flee their homes, provoking the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. It’s also helped the rise of Islamic State, a militant organization with a stronghold in Syria and Iraq that has spread into regional neighbors including Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Afghanistan, and poses a growing threat wider afield. The group claimed responsibility for attacks last year that brought down a Russian airliner in Egypt in October with 224 people aboard and killed 130 people in Paris in November.
The U.S. and Russia, which have taken the lead in promoting the Syrian peace process, secured an agreement among major powers in November for a timetable that would see a power-sharing government by mid-2016. Elections would follow a year later after changes to the constitution. The warring sides must also agree to a nationwide cease-fire, except for offensives that target Islamic State and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
But there’s no consensus on how to resolve the key issue of Assad’s post-war role, said Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “The content of the negotiating framework that was decided in Vienna: ceasefire, unity government, constitution, elections, doesn’t address what the war is actually about -- the character of the regime and especially Bashar al-Assad,” he said.