Syrian peace talks resume in Geneva after bloody 10-month pause

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 23, 2017 6:30 AM

By Tom Miles and Laila Bassam

GENEVA (Reuters) - Syrian peace talks in Geneva resumed on Thursday after breaking down 10 months ago as the battle for Aleppo escalated, with the U.N. mediator hoping to corral the warring sides into a rare face-to-face meeting.

The aim is to end almost six years of war by agreeing on the future governance of Syria, where the position of President Bashar al-Assad is stronger now than a year ago after government forces gained control of Aleppo with Russian military backing.

After meeting Assad's top negotiator at the talks, Russia's envoy to the United Nations said demands from rebels and their Western and Arab backers for Assad to step down were "absurd".

"The delegation of the (Syrian) government arrived in Geneva with constructive instructions to reach progress at these talks," Ambassador Alexei Borodavkin told reporters.

"The agenda of these talks is not yet ready, as far as I understand," he said. He was hoping for progress on creating a government of national unity, drafting a constitution and scheduling elections, as mandated by a U.N. resolution, he said.

The scope of the talks has been cut back to core political questions since last year, after an initiative by Russia, Turkey and Iran took thorny military issues off the Geneva agenda and assigned them to a separate process in the Kazakhstan's Astana.

"Geneva is where the politics are. Astana is absolutely suitable as a place to strengthen the ceasefire," one Western diplomat said.

The Astana talks ushered in a shaky ceasefire which excludes hardline jihadist groups such as Islamic State, and fighting continued in various parts of Syria on Thursday.

Air strikes hit rebel-held areas in Deraa and Hama provinces and insurgents fired rockets at government targets, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. But the overall level of violence in western Syria was less than in previous days.

Pushing towards Raqqa, Islamic State's de facto capital in Syria, Turkey-backed rebels seized the center of al-Bab, one of the militants' strongholds, 30 km (20 miles) from the border.

The Western diplomat said the opposition was aware that eastern Ghouta, a besieged rebel area on the outskirts of Damascus, was vulnerable to a government offensive. But opposition negotiators were not going to give in to pressure from rebels on the ground and walk out of talks, as in previous rounds.

U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura plans to welcome the delegations later on Thursday, raising the prospect that he might bring the warring sides together in one room.

"The plan is to have some kind of opening ceremony in which he welcomes the parties," the Western diplomat said.

Geneva talks in April last year never brought the negotiators together face-to-face and de Mistura had to meet the delegations separately.

(Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Louise Ireland)