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Syrian Peace Talks Are Due to Start Today But No One Knows Who'll Be There

Talks between the Syrian regime and main opposition were scheduled to go ahead on Friday, but in the morning it was still uncertain what was expected and who would turn up.

by Sally Hayden
Jan 29 2016, 12:45pm

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura meets Syrian Foreign Minister Ayman Sossan in Damascus ahead of this month's talks. Photo by Youssef Badawi/EPA

A third attempt at Syrian peace talks is scheduled to go ahead in Switzerland today, amid much confusion about who will attend negotiations that already seem destined for a stalemate.

On Friday morning, it was still uncertain whether or not the opposition would boycott the talks, after leaders announced they were not willing to engage unless aid blockades were lifted and the bombing of civilians was halted. However, other opposition members assured reporters that they would be in attendance.

United Nations spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told reporters on Friday that while the talks would proceed as planned there was still little information about what was expected or who would turn up.

"They will start as planned, but I don't have a time, I don't have a location and I can't tell you anything about the delegations… Later this morning we will have more news," Fawzi said. "There will be, I know, a statement made later today by the office of the special envoy."

"I can't give you a time, I can't give you a who, where, when," he concluded.

Related: Syrian Peace Talks Have Already Been Delayed — But the UN Insists They Will Happen

Riyad Hijab, who heads the opposition's High Negotiations Committee (HNC), which was formed last month, told al Arabiya TV on Thursday that it would "certainly" not be in Geneva. He told CNN's Christiane Amanpour: "We don't want to go to talks that are doomed to failure." 

Hijab was speaking from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where the opposition have support from the government. He is a former Syrian prime minister and the highest level defector from Syrian President Bashar al Assad's government.

"I know Bashar al-Assad. I used to be his prime minister before I defected. And I know about his barbarism," he continued.

"He believes in military solutions only — he does not want a political process. Neither does Russia. All they want is a military resolution. That's why they come to such peace talks, in order to make them fail. They do not come in order to accomplish a peaceful transition. The one who has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians, the one who has been detaining thousands and thousands of people, who has destroyed infrastructure in Syria, will he accept a peaceful transitional period?"

But Hassan Abdel Azim, another senior figure in the committee, said that some members of the opposition were going to Geneva to take part, reported the BBC. He claimed a number of others had refused to come because they were under pressure from a regional power.

Meanwhile, the UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura released a Youtube message. "Five years of this conflict has been too much," he said. "The horror is in front of everyone's eyes," he said. "You have seen enough conferences. Two of them have already taken place. This one cannot fail."

De Mistura has said the negotiations will push for a nationwide ceasefire between all parties in the conflict, other than the Islamic State (IS) and the al Nusra Front.

The civil war in Syria is hugely complicated by the array of different opposition groups, who have their own disputes, and the involvement of foreign powers backing different sides.

Russia has been bombing for three and a half months now in support of their ally Assad. Earlier this week, Russian security chief Nikolai Patrushev told the Associated Press that demands for Assad's resignation would be "counterproductive," and the focus should be on free and fair elections.

Related: How an American Family Ended Up Starving in the Besieged Syrian Town of Madaya

Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told the Guardian earlier this week that if the opposition failed to attend the Geneva talks, the result would be a "propaganda coup" for the regime.

Hammond also insisted that the talks were "going to go ahead" and said "it was always likely that the UN would be able to arrange indirect proximity talks only at this first stage, rather than direct talks between the Syrian regime and the opposition."

"You can lead a horse to water — you can't make it drink," US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters on Monday. "You've got to give people an opportunity here to sit down and negotiate. We have created a framework; the Syrians have the ability to decide the future of Syria."

The new talks are expected to last for six months, and would see the Syrian regime and the opposition avoid face-to-face discussions, instead negotiating from different rooms through UN mediators, in what has been called "proximity talks." 

There have been two previous attempts at holding mediation talks in Geneva — in 2012 and 2014. 

Meanwhile, the conflict continues and the casualties stack up. Five years of civil war have resulted in 250,000 deaths and the displacement of millions.

Related: Faced With A Russian Onslaught, Syrian Rebels Are Calling for Help From All Muslims

Reuters contributed to this report.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

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