GENEVA (AP) — The U.N.'s top envoy for Syria said Monday he hopes and expects the Syrian government will show up for "serious talks" with the opposition this week in Geneva, despite reluctance by Damascus officials to commit to the international body's negotiations process.
The United Nations is scheduled to resume the peace talks between the government and the Syrian opposition in this Swiss city Tuesday. The opposition's delegation arrived Monday, after publishing a communique last week that said it was ready for talks "without preconditions."
The government had not yet named a delegation to the talks, and the pro-government newspaper Al-Watan said Damascus would postpone its arrival, citing the opposition's position that President Bashar Assad must leave at the start of any transitional period that will lead Syria out of nearly seven years of civil war. The paper said the demand was a "hidden condition."
But, speaking to the Security Council via videoconference, U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura said, "Naturally we hope, and indeed expect, that the government will be on its way shortly."
A diplomatic official close to the negotiations said the U.N. was expecting the government team to arrive late, but meetings between the opposition and de Mistura would begin Tuesday as planned.
The head of the opposition's delegation, Nasr Hariri, told reporters that the opposition was "ready to negotiate," and he accused the government of stalling.
"The thing the regime is most afraid of is political negotiations," Hariri said.
His delegation was expanded last week under Saudi Arabian auspices to include opposition factions seen by Damascus as more palatable for negotiations, including the "Moscow group," which has resisted calling for Assad's departure. Hariri said the reformulation removed any excuse for Syria's government and its chief diplomatic backer, Russia, to avoid the U.N. talks.
Syria's government has refused to negotiate over Assad's future in any talks with the opposition. It says it wants to focus on defeating "terrorism," its byword for armed opponents of the Syrian president.
The talks follow a week of high level meetings that were expected to pave the way for a revival of the stalled diplomatic process. Assad paid a surprise visit to Sochi, Russia, last week to thank Russian President Vladimir Putin for his vital military support. Putin directed Russia's air force to intervene on the side of Assad in 2015, likely saving the government from collapse when it appeared rebels would threaten the capital. Russia remains a key sponsor of the Damascus government and has shielded it against sanctions and punitive resolutions in the U.N. Security Council.
De Mistura told the Security Council he expected the government's participation in the Geneva talks, "particularly in light of President Assad's commitment to President Putin when they met in Sochi."
He stressed he would "not accept any preconditions by any party" and said the talks would be guided by a 2015 Security Council resolution mandating a political transition for Syria.
This latest round of Geneva talks, the eighth since 2012, will focus on getting to an "inclusive process" to draft and ratify a new constitution, De Mistura said. This would put off the contentious issue of Assad's future.
Parallel talks between the two sides in Sochi have been postponed until January or February, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti said. Russian diplomats did not set a date for their conference after spiking an initial plan to hold it Nov. 18. The Syrian government said it welcomed the Sochi talks and would attend them. The opposition has said it prefers to meet the government under the auspices of the U.N.
Asked about the Sochi negotiations track, de Mistura said, "It is premature for me at this stage to say anything about this initiative, and I will continue to view this proposal and all other initiatives through the same prism: Does it contribute to effective U.N.-led intra-Syria negotiations in Geneva?"
In eastern Syria, meanwhile, opposition activists blamed Russia for an airstrike on a village held by the Islamic State that killed at least 25 people, all of them civilians. The DeirEzzor 24 activist group said Sunday's strike on the village of Shaafa in Deir el-Zour hit a residential compound where scores of internally displaced people were staying.
The village is near the town of Boukamal, which Syrian troops and their allies captured this month. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights gave a higher death toll, saying 53 people were killed, including 21 children.
The Russian Defense Ministry said six Tu-22M3 long-range bombers scrambled from Russia and carried out a massed airstrike on "terrorists' property" in Deir el-Zour.
Near Damascus, a wave of government airstrikes and artillery fire on the opposition-held eastern Ghouta suburbs killed at least 18 civilians, according to the Observatory.
Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten reported this story in Geneva and AP writer Philip Issa reported from Beirut. AP writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.