- Syria's delegation chief says anti-terrorism top priority
- Assad's opponents are demanding end to airstrikes, sieges
Talks to end five years of war in Syria got off to a difficult start on Sunday, barely averting a boycott by President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents and clouded by a triple bombing outside Damascus that killed at least 45 people.
The attack took place in a mainly Shiite Muslim suburb of the capital, according to the official Syrian news agency SANA. Islamic State claimed responsibility, the Associated Press reported.
Government and opposition delegates dug in to longstanding positions as talks began in the Swiss city of Geneva. “If there is one priority it is to fight terrorism,” the Syrian government’s chief negotiator and ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, told reporters, referring to opposition forces.
The Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, the main opposition group, demanded an end to Russian airstrikes in support of Assad and to government assaults on civilian areas.
The U.S. and European states have expressed relief at the opposition’s decision to attend the negotiations, which mark the most serious effort to end the conflict. The Syrian war, which has killed about 250,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes, has left Europe facing an escalated threat of terrorist attacks and a growing refugee problem. It has also fueled 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.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the negotiations in Geneva “a pivotal phase” in the diplomatic effort to curb the violence in Syria. “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,” Kerry said in a statement on Sunday.
The talks were originally scheduled to begin on Jan. 25, but were delayed by opposition objections. On Monday, Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s special envoy for Syria, is to begin shuttling between the government delegation and opposition factions, including a group made up of figures sympathetic to Russia.
Scheduled to last for several months, the negotiations aim to agree on a nationwide ceasefire except for offensives targeting Islamic State and al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and forming a transitional government that includes the opposition by mid-2016. A year after that elections should follow under a new Constitution.
The peace efforts come as Assad’s forces, backed by a Russian air campaign in its fifth month, are making progress against Islamic State militants and rebel forces supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations.
Fighting terrorism “won’t happen without ending Russia’s aggression,” Salem al-Muslet, a spokesman for the HNC, told a press conference. “Russia has fought everything in Syria other than terrorism.”