UN envoy not expecting quick breakthrough in Syria peace talks

Mediator says he expects to create ‘momentum in the political process’

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura: said Russia had promised to urge the Syrian government to halt aerial and ground attacks on insurgent-held areas. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura: said Russia had promised to urge the Syrian government to halt aerial and ground attacks on insurgent-held areas. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

 

United Nations envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura does not expect a breakthrough in the fourth round of talks between the Syrian government and opponents, which are opening today in Geneva after a suspension of 10 months.

“I am expecting to create a momentum in the political process [involving] the beginning of rounds on substantive issues,” he said.

Last year, the ceasefire, which permitted talks to take place, was sponsored by the United States and Russia. Today, Russia, Iran and Turkey, countries with forces on the ground in Syria, have promoted the ceasefire. Mr de Mistura revealed Russia had promised to urge the Syrian government to halt aerial and ground attacks on insurgent-held areas so there would be no pretext to walk out of the talks. He warned that the opposing sides could engage in flourishes of rhetoric but said this was normal during highly-charged negotiations.

Asked by The Irish Times if the opposition delegation would be “inclusive”, a term he has repeatedly used when discussing participation, he replied that the Riyadh-based high negotiations committee had granted representatives of armed groups to 50 per cent of the places on its delegation. However, he did not say whether these fighters were Saudi-sponsored, which was the case during the previous round.

Women’s advisory board

Mr de Mistura plans to consult the women’s advisory board, as this body represents more than half the Syrian population. However, he expressed disappointment that neither of the delegations included a sufficient number of women, although those included were “highly competent”, he stated.

He repeatedly said the agenda for the political process had been set by UN Security Council resolution 2254 of December 2015, which calls on the sides to observe a ceasefire, excluding “terrorist” factions, and the government and opposition to take part in negotiations leading to the establishment of a transitional unity government, which would draw up a constitution and hold elections in which Syrians at home and abroad would vote. The question of who would govern would be settled by Syrians.

The fate of President Bashar al-Assad has been the chief sticking point in talks: the government has refused to discuss it while the opposition has demanded his removal. Some external actors now argue the president should remain until Islamic State and al-Qaeda have been contained or defeated.

US president Donald Trump had favoured this position but his administration has not yet finalised a policy. Following a meeting with new US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, Mr de Mistura predicted this would “need some time” but revealed the US would be represented during this round by the official appointed by the previous administration, providing continuity.