Syria's main opposition body, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), said Friday that it would attend peace talks slated to start on the fifth anniversary of a conflict that has wreaked a devastating toll on the country and region.
Five years after the spark that set off an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, hopes for peace in Syria received a boost with the HNC announcing Friday that it would attend talks on Monday, March 14 in Geneva. But the opposition group was quick to downplay the chances of reaching a deal with the Syrian government.
In a statement distributed to reporters, the HNC said it would participate in the negotiations as part of its "commitment to international efforts to stop the bloodshed and find a political solution".
However, hours after the HNC announcement, prominent Syrian opposition figure Haytham Manna said he would not attend the talks, underscoring the challenges confronting negotiators in Geneva next week.
"Nothing has changed ... it's not serious," said Manna, who is not part of the HNC, but co-leader of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), a Kurdish-Arab alliance formed late last year.
Manna boycotted the last round of talks in Geneva earlier this year when invitations were not extended to Kurdish representatives, including the head of Syria's most powerful Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party. Turkey considers the party and its military branch, the People's Protection Units, to be affiliated with the PKK, which Ankara considers a terrorist group.
Elections to be held in 18 months
Monday’s talks in Geneva are to focus on new governance, a constitution and elections, said UN envoy Staffan de Mistura.
The biggest sticking point in the peace talks remains the fate of Assad, who Western and Gulf Arab governments insist must go at the end of a transition period envisioned under a roadmap hammered out in Vienna last year by major powers. Assad’s backers, Russia and Iran, say Syrians themselves must decide.
In an interview with the Russian RIA Novosti state agency Friday, de Mistura said elections in Syria should be held in 18 months after the start of the latest Geneva talks.
“The elections, both presidential and parliamentary, will be under UN observation," said de Mistura.
The UN special envoy added that the focus of the agenda at Monday’s talks would be putting together "an inclusive new government" followed by a new constitution and elections.
"I hope that during the first stage of talks, we reach progress at least on the first question," said de Mistura.
The HNC mirrored de Mistura’s hopes, noting that it would focus on the establishment of an interim governing body with full executive powers and insist on Syria's territorial integrity.
HNC coordinator Riad Hijab said it was "concerned with representing the just cause of the Syrian people...and investing in all available chances to alleviate the Syrian people's suffering".
"We know that they (the government) are committing crimes, and that they are preparing an air and ground escalation in the coming period," he said, without elaborating.
Regime targets opposition in Aleppo, IS group in Palmyra
The progress on the Geneva talks came as Syrian regime airstrikes Friday on a rebel-held neighbourhood of Aleppo killed five people, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The raids followed a lull in fighting brought by an unprecedented ceasefire that has largely held since coming into force on February 27.
Meanwhile, the Syrian army backed by Russian air strikes is aiming to capture the historic city of Palmyra from the Islamic State (IS) group to open a road to the eastern province of Deir al-Zor in an offensive that got under way this week, a source close to the Syrian government told Reuters Friday.
The UN-brokered ceasefire between the Syrian government and opposition groups does not include the IS group and Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syria branch.
The Russian air force has hit Palmyra with dozens of air strikes since Wednesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights group. Syrian government forces were on Friday battling the IS group some 7 km (4 miles) from the ancient site that fell to the jihadists last May.
Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman described it as a large-scale assault, calling it a "real operation to retake control". The source close to Damascus said the aim was to "seize the road from Tadmur (Palmyra) to Deir al-Zor".
IS group has blown up ancient temples and tombs since capturing Palmyra in what the UN cultural agency UNESCO has called a war crime. The city, located at a crossroads in central Syria, is surrounded mostly by desert.
Since the Russian air force intervened in support of Assad last September, tilting the military balance his way, Western states have criticised Moscow for directing most of its air strikes at rebels in western Syria rather than the IS group.
The capture of Palmrya and further eastward advances into IS group-held Deir al-Zor would mark the most significant Syrian government gain against the jihadist group since the start of the Russian intervention.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP and AP)
Date created : 2016-03-11