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Few signs of progress at first full day of Syria peace talks in Geneva

GENEVA -- Representatives from the Syrian government and opposition forces held separate meetings with U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura on Friday in Geneva in the first full day of fresh talks that appear headed for failure.

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U.N. mediator for Syria Staffan de Mistura attends a news conference after a meeting at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, January 12, 2017.  REUTERS

The talks have been marked by disputes from the start, surfacing first among the ranks of opposition representatives themselves. The group nearly missed the opening ceremony of the talks on Thursday after having threatened to boycott the proceedings over disagreements on the participants and format of the session.

The High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the main opposition group, insisted on being the only rebel delegation in the talks, following demands by two other groups based in Moscow and Cairo demanding a seat at the table. This latest round of talks, known as “Geneva IV,” appears unlikely to resolve the war in Syria that has claimed the lives of more than 300,000 people, created the world’s worst refugee crisis and fueled the rise of the Islamic State.

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Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari emerged from a meeting with de Mistura earlier in the day and said the discussion was focused “only” on the format of future meetings. Ja’afari added that his delegation would study the details of an unspecified “paper” presented by the U.N. envoy ahead of their next meeting. He did not say when the two would sit down next.

But Nasr Al-Hariri, the head of the HNC -- the Saudi-backed group representing a network of rebel fighters and political opponents of President Bashar al-Assad -- continues to demand Assad’s removal from power, calling for the formation of a transitional government based on the agreement reached in 2012 during the first peace conference in Geneva.

“What is required from the U.N. envoy, as a mediator, is to implement U.N. resolutions calling for transitional government and not to ask everyone’s opinion,” he told reporters following a two-hour meeting with de Mistura in the afternoon.

The government delegation says Assad’s status is not up for debate at the talks and contends that the 2012 Geneva agreement does not require his ouster.

Assad’s envoys said they came to the conference to raise awareness of what they say is the threat posed by terrorists exploiting the chaos in Syria and spreading into other Middle Eastern countries and around the globe.

The geopolitical landscape has shifted dramatically since de Mistura last brought the warring sides together for talks in Geneva in April 2016.

In December, Syrian government forces dealt the rebels their biggest defeat in the conflict by retaking Aleppo with the help of Russian jets and Iranian-backed fighters. The city was Syria’s commercial capital before the war and had been a rebel stronghold since 2012.

Turkey -- once the chief sponsor of the Syrian opposition -- has recalibrated its foreign policy since a failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2016. Turkish troops are currently fighting ISIS forces in northern Syria and the NATO member has gradually begun cooperating with Russia. Ankara’s main objective appears to now be preventing the Kurds from expanding their footprint in northern Syria.

For the moment, the diplomatic initiative is being driven by Iran, Turkey and Russia, which have held two meetings in Astana, Kazakhstan. De Mistura has just barely managed to prevent Russia from taking over the peace talks from the U.N.

A day before the current talks began, the U.N. envoy said he was not expecting any major breakthroughs, but added he was determined to maintain “proactive momentum” toward the roadmap for peace established by Security Council Resolution 2254.

Despite the slow pace of progress, each side vowed it would not be the first to walk away from the talks, which are expected to eventually lead to face-to-face meetings and last until late next week.