The biggest push to date to end Syria’s bloody civil war looked in trouble Friday with key opposition members staying away from the scheduled start of peace talks with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Switzerland.
The planned UN-mediated talks in Geneva are aimed at ending a nearly five-year-old conflict that has killed more than 260,000 people and facilitated the meteoric rise of the extremist Islamic State (IS) group.
The highly complex war has also destabilised the already restive Middle East and drawn in not only regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey but also the United States and Russia.
It has also forced millions of Syrians from their homes, many of them into neighbouring states and further afield, causing a major political headache for the European Union which received around a million migrants in 2015.
The UN Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, issued on Thursday a video message to the Syrian people saying that after a string of previous failed initiatives, this new round of talks “cannot fail”.
“Five years of this conflict have been too much. The horror is in front of everyone’s eyes,” de Mistura said. “You must know also that we count on you to raise your voice to say ‘khalas’ (‘stop’ in Arabic).”
– Vienna Process –
The Geneva negotiations, if they happen, would not be a face-to-face conversation between the regime and its opponents. Instead they are “proximity talks” when go-betweens shuttle between the different participants.
They are part of an ambitious plan launched in Vienna in November by a raft of key actors including Russia, the United States, Gulf states, Iran and Turkey that foresees elections within 18 months.
In December, the main Syrian political opposition and armed factions, excluding Kurdish groups, formed the umbrella opposition group known as the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) in Riyadh.
But despite Western pressure, the HNC on Thursday refused to show up in Switzerland before an agreement is reached on aid reaching hundreds of thousands of people stuck in besieged towns.
“(On Friday) we won’t be in Geneva. We could go there, but we will not enter the negotiating room if our demands aren’t met,” HNC coordinator Riad Hijab told Al-Arabiya television.
A senior delegate for the HNC, which was meeting in Riyadh for a fourth day Friday, told AFP however that it may still decide later in the day to travel to the negotiations.
The HNC, which named Mohammed Alloush of the Islamist rebel group Army of Islam as its chief negotiator, has also asked for “clarifications” after the UN issued invitations to other opposition figures.
Individual invitations were reportedly issued to a list of figures opposed to the regime but who are thought to have closer ties to Moscow and have limited influence on the ground.
Randa Kassis, a member of that list, told AFP in Geneva on Friday that despite the uncertainty on who would attend, “something has to start. We have to think of the Syrian people.”
The HNC and its Saudi and Turkish backers have also objected to the participation of Syrian Kurdish groups that have made key advances against IS in northern Syria in recent months.
Russia, however, says Kurdish involvement is essential.
The HNC also wants assurances from the international community that it will move to end regime attacks on civilians and allow humanitarian aid.
– ‘Inflexible’ Assad –
The Syrian government delegation, headed by Syria’s envoy to the UN Bashar al-Jaafari, was expected in Geneva around midday (1100 GMT), the UN had said Thursday, and other opposition figures not part of the HNC said they would be present.
UN spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said Friday that the talks “will start as planned… in the afternoon.”
But Haytham Manna, a longstanding opposition figure who is co-chair of the political wing of a Kurdish-Arab alliance, told AFP in Geneva he did not expect the discussions to begin until Monday.
France-based Middle East analyst Agnes Levallois said the opposition was growing increasingly frustrated that the question of Assad’s fate, a key stumbling block in previous talks, was being put off.
“Assad is feeling stronger and stronger so is being inflexible,” she said.
Government forces have made major inroads into opposition-held territory since Russia started backing Assad with air strikes in September.
The United States, while expressing sympathy for the rebel demands for aid, also urged the Syrian opposition to attend the talks.
“This is really an historic opportunity for them to go to Geneva to propose serious, practical ways to implement a ceasefire and other confidence-building measures,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.