Syrian peace talks set to begin Monday in Geneva have been postponed until Friday at the earliest, amid growing uncertainty over who will represent the country's opposition.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN's special envoy for Syria, told a packed briefing room that he was "aiming at having the beginning" of talks on January 29 and would send out invitations on Tuesday. He said negotiations would last six months, with staggered gatherings of rebel factions and officials from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Geneva.
There will be no face-to-face discussions between the two sides initially. "Proximity talks" will take place instead, with staff ushering notes from one room to the next.
The question of precisely which rebel groups would be invited to Geneva has bedeviled de Mistura for weeks.
"There have been very different opinions regarding the list of invitations," the envoy remarked on Monday. "That has been, and you know it very well, the issue."
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De Mistura declined to name who was banned outside of the Islamic State group and the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. "What matters is… starting the talks," he said.
Mediation efforts were attempted on two previous occasions in Geneva, in 2012 and 2014, but did nothing to end violence in Syria, where a nearly five-year civil war has killed more than 250,000 people. Unlike those conferences, this year's Syrian talks are the result of an agreement tendered last year in Vienna by backers of the Syrian government, including Iran and Russia, and Saudi Arabia, which has supported rebel groups, along with the US.
That agreement, endorsed by the Security Council in December, envisioned a wide-scale ceasefire and a push toward transitional governance. The first priority, said de Mistura on Monday, will be the "possibility" of such a cessation of hostilities.
But like this month's potential Geneva convening, the Vienna framework cast out IS and Nusra Front — two of the most powerful forces on the ground in Syria. An expensive US-led program to train rebels and have them fight IS collapsed last year, embarrassing the administration in Washington.
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In the lead up to Monday, rebel groups guided by Riyadh have insisted that the regime and Russia cease launching airstrikes on their positions. Russia, for its part, wants several factions beyond IS and Nusra Front to be excluded, and Turkey has opposed the presence of Syrian Kurdish groups at the talks. But de Mistura told reporters that there would be no preconditions for any side.
He cautioned that should the talks in fact begin on Friday, some attendees may arrive days later, and that setbacks were to be expected.
"There will be a lot of posturing and walkouts," he predicted.
The Geneva conference is regarded with great urgency in the US, and Washington has reportedly threatened to withdraw support for Syrian opposition groups if they do not engage in UN-mediated talks in the Swiss city.
"You can lead a horse to water — you can't make it drink," US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters on Monday in Laos. "You've got to give people an opportunity here to sit down and negotiate. We have created a framework."
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