UN says Syria talks ‘cannot fail’, opposition to miss start

The UN’s Syria envoy warned peace talks due to be held in Geneva must not fail, but members of the fractious opposition said they would miss the start on Friday.

Delegates from the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee said late Thursday that discussions in Riyadh over whether to attend the UN-brokered talks would continue the next day.

But organisers of the Geneva negotiations said no postponement was expected.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, in a video message to the Syrian people, said the talks could be their country’s last chance for peace.

“Now we need to hear your voice to everyone who is coming to this conference, and saying this conference must be an opportunity not to be missed,” the envoy said.

He said that after several stalled peace processes, the Geneva talks “cannot fail”.

A spokeswoman for the UN talks, Khawla Mattar, told AFP there is “no postponement from our side”.

A senior delegate of the High Negotiations Committee told AFP that a decision was expected on Friday on whether to attend the UN-brokered talks.

Another delegate, Monzer Makhos, said that members “would not be there” in Geneva for the planned start of talks “as we have yet to make a decision”.

Western diplomats have piled pressure on the opposition to participate in the negotiations, part of the biggest push yet to resolve Syria’s nearly five-year civil war.

The Committee has asked for “clarifications” after the UN issued invitations to other opposition figures, and wants assurances from the international community that it will move to end regime attacks on civilians and allow humanitarian aid.

Salem al-Meslet, a Committee spokesman, said it was waiting for an answer from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the application of a Security Council resolution adopted in December that endorsed a roadmap for peace.

He said De Mistura had already assured the opposition that two of the resolution’s articles — calling for immediate access for humanitarian aid and an end to attacks on civilians — were non-negotiable.

– ‘Historic opportunity’ –

“We are serious about participating in the negotiations. The ones who are hindering the start (of talks) are those who are bombing and starving civilians,” Meslet said.

France-based Middle East analyst Agnes Levallois said the opposition was growing increasingly frustrated that the question of President Bashar al-Assad’s fate was being put off.

“Assad is feeling stronger and stronger so is being inflexible,” she said.

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 talks to begin until Monday.

A source close to the government in Damascus said its delegation, headed by Syria’s envoy to the UN Bashar al-Jaafari, would arrive on Friday.

The talks are part of a UN-backed plan, agreed by top diplomats last year in Vienna, that envisages negotiations followed by a transitional government, a new constitution, and elections within 18 months.

The roadmap is the most ambitious plan yet to end the conflict which has killed more than 260,000 people and forced millions from their homes.

Officials have said the talks, only the second dialogue between Syrians since the start of the conflict, would run over six months, with the first round expected to last between two and three weeks.

French President Francois Hollande called for negotiations to start as soon as possible.

“We urgently need to put in place humanitarian measures and negotiate a political transition,” Hollande said at a joint press conference with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

– ‘Russian strikes’ kill 54 –

Russia said on Thursday it wanted another meeting of world powers on Syria in Munich on February 11, when the first round of the Geneva talks could still be taking place.

De Mistura’s office said on Tuesday it had issued invitations to the talks, but refused to say who had been invited.

The Committee, which has named Mohammed Alloush of the Islamist rebel group Army of Islam as its chief negotiator, confirmed it had received an invitation, but so did several other opposition figures not belonging to the body.

The push for talks comes as Syrian forces have been advancing against rebels in various parts of the country, thanks in large part to Russian air strikes launched in September.

Critics have accused Moscow of killing hundreds of civilians in the strikes and on Thursday a monitor said at least 54 civilians had died in suspected Russian air raids in parts of northern and eastern Syria under IS control.

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