No sign of thaw in Syrian talks as U.N. envoy offers working paper

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 24, 2017 8:16 AM

By Stephanie Nebehay and John Irish

GENEVA (Reuters) - U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura handed working papers focused on procedural issues to delegations at Syrian peace talks on Friday, but there appeared little prospect of the opposing sides meeting directly soon.

Opposing sides in the war came face-to-face at the U.N. for the first time in three years on Thursday, to hear mediator Staffan de Mistura - who is looking to lay the foundations for negotiations to end the six-year conflict - urge them to cooperate.

But tensions were palpable among participants at (Friday's) opening ceremony.

In a short statement to reporters after more than two hours of discussions with the U.N. envoy, the government's chief negotiator Bashar al-Ja'afari told reporters that they had discussed nothing more than the format for the coming days.

"At the end of the meeting de Mistura gave us a paper and we agreed to study this paper. We shall inform him of our position," he said.

He corrected an interpreter who described it as a "document", and gave no details of what it said. He took no questions.

De Mistura was holding bilateral meetings with the delegations on Friday to establish a plan for this round of negotiations that could run into early March.

The opposition delegation, which is not fully under one umbrella, said it had also received a paper.

"There is a paper about the procedural issues and some ideas to begin the political process," lead negotiator Nasr al-Hariri told reporters.

Hariri sought to once again stress that the opposition's priority was to begin negotiations on a political transition with a transitional governing body, suggesting it would not back down on its demands that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down.

"We have heard from Mr. de Mistura positive ideas and suggestions, I believe he is more enthusiastic to be engaged seriously in political transition," he said.

"Political transition" is a phrase understood by the opposition to mean a removal of Assad or at least an erosion of his powers. But his government has rejected any suggestion that it could be on the table, and at previous peace talks in Geneva his negotiators consistently tried to steer away from it.

At the last Geneva talks, 10 months ago, de Mistura had to shuttle between the parties who never met in the same room.

The negotiations were suspended as the war escalated, and a senior Western diplomat said he did not anticipate much progress.

"Staffan said recently it was his ambition to have direct talks, but I can't see that happening," he said. "My guess is it will be like last year, proximity talks."

(Additional reporting by Tom Miles, Yara Abi Nader and Laila Bassam; Editing by Andrew Roche)