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Syria talks kick off, with one notable absence

U.N. mediator for Syria Staffan de Mistura (2L) and his staff attend a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland January 25, 2016.


GENEVA -- A U.N. official said Syrian peace talks will begin in Geneva as planned Friday, despite an ongoing boycott by the main Syrian opposition group which continues to stay away pending assurances from the U.N. chief on the implementation of Security Council resolutions related to humanitarian issues.

U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura will begin by meeting the government's delegation, which is headed by the country's ambassador to the U.N. Bashar Jaafari, according to de Mistura's spokeswoman Khawla Mattar. She said he would later meet other participants in the talks, including civil society representatives.

The opposition boycott is a blow to the U.N.'s first attempt in two years to bring representatives of President Bashar Assad's government and his opponents together for talks on ending the devastating five-year war. On the eve of the talks, de Mistura appealed to Syrians to make concessions and described the talks as "an opportunity not to be missed."

The indirect talks are part of a process outlined in a U.N. resolution last month that envisages an 18-month timetable for a political transition in Syria, including the drafting of a new constitution and elections.

The opposition is facing ongoing disputes over which parties will attend and has come under criticism for including the militant Army of Islam group that controls wide areas near Damascus and is considered a terrorist organization by the Syrian government and Russia.

The main Syrian opposition group, known as the Higher Negotiating Committee, or HNC, said it was still waiting for an official response from the United Nations about a list of concerns.

Ahmad Ramadan, a senior official with the Syrian National Coalition, which is part of the HNC, said the opposition will boycott the talks until it receives assurances on the implementation of U.N. Security Council resolutions on lifting the sieges on rebel held areas and halting bombardment of civilians in Syria.

"There cannot be any negotiations as long as the humanitarian issues have not been discussed or implemented," he said.

Basma Kodmani, a member of the opposition's negotiating team, said the HNC is now studying whether their delegation will come to Geneva to raise these concerns with the U.N. officials or stay in Saudi Arabia where they can raise them from a distance.

Ramadan said that de Mistura sent a letter on Thursday to the head of the HNC, Riad Hijab, which was deemed unsatisfactory. He and another opposition figure, Khaled Nasser, said the U.N. envoy wrote that the opposition's demands were reasonable and that humanitarian issues should be "above negotiations," but that he was powerless to implement them himself, adding that negotiations were the best way to force everyone to implement those resolutions.

In Syria, the official Tishrin newspaper boasted that the no-show by the Saudi and Turkey-backed opposition in Geneva "reflects the collective flight of terrorist groups backed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey from the political table, following their collapses on the battlefield."

"In light of their losses, the opposition abroad, especially in Riyadh, has chosen to run away" as a face-saving measure, it said in an editorial. The paper was speaking about recent victories by government forces on the offensive under the cover of Russian airstrikes.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the moderate opposition was not attending the talks because Russia continues to bomb opposition-held areas in Syria, and that it is a "betrayal" to the moderate opposition to ask them to attend without a cease-fire.

"The truth behind their decision not to join is unfortunately the fact that some promises were not fulfilled," he said in Istanbul.

"Russia's constant bombing of the opposition regions is causing serious distress within the opposition. For them to attend (Geneva) without a cease-fire is ... a betrayal for those who are at the front," he added.

Opposition figures from outside the HNC are in Geneva but they were invited as advisers. The HNC is supposed to be the main opposition group in the talks.

On Thursday, Hijab told the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV that they might come to Geneva but will not enter the negotiations rooms unless their demands are met.

"Those who cannot achieve humanitarian demands of the Syrian people will not be able to achieve political transition in Syria," Hijab said.

A Western diplomat in close contact with the SNC said in Geneva that "their (HNC) main message to us has been while we are under sustained attack by Russia and the regime and other states and militants and other groups we cannot justify to Syrians why we are going."

"They understand the risk to not attending any process which has international support or oversight, but at the same time they are acutely aware of the risk of going to negotiations which is not on terms favorable to them or their communities," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the opposition.

"We tell them the reason to come here is not to hand the Assad regime a propaganda victory," he said.