Syrian Opposition Arrives for Peace Talks With Assad Regime

  • Kerry welcomes opposition decision, hopes for early progress
  • Assad's opponents had demanded end to air strikes, sieges

The latest bid to end five years of war in Syria gathered some momentum as the main opposition group arrived in Geneva for United Nations-sponsored talks, after lifting its threat to boycott the peace process.

The Saudi-backed High Negotiating Committee arrived in the Swiss city on Saturday, said Khawla Mattar, spokeswoman for UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura. The delegation is expected to have its first meeting with the UN envoy on Sunday.

“The HNC welcomes the opportunity for a political process that will end the crisis in Syria, and stop the bloodshed,” it said in an e-mailed statement.

The U.S. and European countries welcomed the opposition’s decision, which boosts the most serious effort so far to end the conflict after two previous failed peace conferences. The Syrian war, which has killed 250,000 people, has left Europe facing an escalated threat from terrorist attacks and a growing refugee problem.

The HNC had demanded that air strikes by Russia and government forces against insurgents end before the talks. De Mistura, who met a delegation sent by Assad on Friday, said the opposition’s participation was the best way to secure their demands, which also include prisoner releases and the lifting of sieges of rebel-held Syrian towns.

The peace efforts to end the conflict 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.

The UN-sponsored negotiations, which are envisaged as stretching over several months, are being held in a so-called proximity format. This will involve de Mistura shuttling between the government delegation and two opposition factions -- a second opposition grouping is made up of Moscow-friendly figures.

The U.S. on Friday welcomed the decision of the HNC to attend the negotiations. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on both sides to achieve results “in the days ahead,” according to an e-mailed statement.

Refugee Crisis

The conflict has forced millions 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 further afield. The group claimed responsibility for attacks last year that brought down a Russian airliner in Egypt in October with 224 people on board 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.

It will be an achievement if the talks do actually get underway with the government and opposition, though 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.

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