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Low expectations as Syria talks resume once again

Fabrice Coffrini, AFP | UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura addresses a press conference on the eve of resumption of peace talks on Syria, on February 22, 2017 at the United Nations offices in Geneva.

UN-brokered Syrian peace talks resume in Geneva on Thursday, but hopes of a breakthrough are dim, clouded by persistent violence and deadlock over the country's political future.


The latest talks are the first UN-mediated negotiations on Syria in nearly a year and come amid major military and geopolitical changes on the ground and in diplomatic circles. Nevertheless after more than six years of an internecine civil war, the old divides persist and are likely to resurface.

On the eve of the talks, UN mediator Staffan de Mistura admitted there was limited ground for progress on making peace.

"Am I expecting a breakthrough? No, I am not expecting a breakthrough," said de Mistura. “There are spoilers, we know it, we’ve seen it all the time during the last talks…But we will try to control it."

Reporting from Geneva Thursday, FRANCE 24’s John Zarocostas said the veteran diplomat “had quite a lot of experience” with spoilers in previous rounds of the Geneva negotiations.

But this time, Zarocostas noted: “It’s a radically different situation…you have new players and new coalitions. You have a Russian-Turkey-Iran ceasefire whereas last year, you had a US and Russia-sponsored ceasefire before it all unraveled. The Russians and the Turks have been holding the ceasefire with the various sides they back on the ground. What is also different is, and we don’t know yet, how the new Trump administration will come into these talks.”

While US President Donald Trump has repeatedly asserted that he agrees with the Russian position in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group, his administration has provided no details of its position on Iranian involvement in Syria. Russia and Iran have been President Bashar al-Assad’s staunchest allies since the Syrian uprising erupted in 2011.

The Syrian government delegation at the Geneva talks is headed by Syria's UN ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari while the main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) is led by cardiologist Nasr al-Hariri and lawyer Mohammad Sabra.

Different tables, different rooms

On Wednesday, the HNC called for face-to-face discussions with the Syrian government following previous acrimonious rounds of the talks when the two sides operated in separate rooms with UN representatives forced to shuttle between them.

“We ask for direct negotiations... It would save time and be proof of seriousness instead of negotiating in (separate) rooms," HNC spokesman Salem al-Meslet told AFP.

This time, de Mistura has voiced hope that he will manage to bring the two sides together for direct talks.

The latest round of talks come as the rebels are in a significantly weaker position on the ground.

The Syrian army has recaptured the rebel bastion of eastern Aleppo while Turkey and Russia -- once firmly on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict – are engaged in truce negotiations.

The latest truce was brokered in late December by Turkey and Russia ahead of separate negotiations that also involved Iran in Kazakhstan.

The deal has reduced violence but fighting flared again this week including a government bombing campaign on rebel territory around Damascus. The HNC charged that Assad was trying to send "a bloody message" before the talks resume.

De Mistura ‘criticising’ Trump

A bitter dispute over Assad's fate also continues to divide the camps. The HNC has insisted he must leave office as part of any deal, while Damascus has said the president's future is not open for negotiation.

De Mistura's office earlier said that the talks remain focused on "political transition". For the UN, that term can include a broad range of scenarios but the opposition sees it as implying Assad's removal.

Forcing the Syrian president from power had been the stated goal of Barack Obama's administration but Trump's election has muddied the US stance.

The UN envoy acknowledged that the change of leadership in Washington had injected new uncertainties into the peace process.

"I'm not criticising. I'm not complaining," he told reporters but added that all camps were looking "forward to seeing what their strategy is".

For the Syrian opposition there is urgency - this is the fourth round of UN-brokered talks, and violence which has killed more than 310,000 people over the last six years.

"We hope to see something achieved here in Geneva 4 because there is no way Syrians will be moving to Geneva 5 with this cost they are paying in Syria," said the HNC spokesman.

"We hope to end it right now here."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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