Talks begin in Geneva to end four-year war in Syria

UN human rights chief calls for ‘no amnesty’ for war crimes or crimes against humanity

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura declared "the talks have started" on Monday following a meeting with the Saudi-sponsored Syrian opposition delegation attending the Geneva meeting charged with ending the war in Syria.

“The first, immediate objective is to ensure talks are ongoing and everyone is on board,” he said.

While the Riyadh-based Higher Negotiations Committee (HNC) continued to put forward its demands for prisoner releases, an end to bombing and humanitarian access to insurgent-held areas, Mr de Mistura said these issues were not only the responsibility of the sides but of all parties involved in the conflict.

Although HNC spokesman Selim al-Musalat said it was waiting for implementation of its demands, chief negotiator Mohamed Aloush flew in from Istanbul, signalling that formal proxy talks with the government delegation could take place on Tuesday.

Strong pressure

The HNC has been under strong pressure to join the peace process from US envoy to the Syrian opposition Michael Ratney and US assistant secretary of state Anne Patterson, who met Russian deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov to ensure the talks will go ahead, with Mr de Mistura shuttling between the sides occupying separate rooms.

A Syrian government meeting with Mr de Mistura was rescheduled to this morning until after he held his first official talks with the HNC.

Mr Alloush, a controversial figure, is politburo chief of the Saudi-fostered Army of Islam which is based east of and is branded a “terrorist” grouping by the government, Russia and Iran as it regularly fires random mortar shells into the Syrian capital.

Indicating that Mr Alloush’s presence might not be a problem for Damascus as long as the talks are indirect, Syrian delegation head Bashar al-Jaafari has said, “We are not negotiating with terrorists. This is exactly why [de Mistura] insisted on having indirect talks.”

HNC allies Saudi Arabian foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu have announced that the HNC is free to leave the Geneva talks at any time if its demands are not met.

War crimes

Speaking to journalists, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said there should be no amnesty for people who have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity in Syria. He urged those participating in talks to negotiate an early end to the four-year old conflict.

“In the case of Syria, we are here to remind everyone that where allegations reach the threshold of war crimes or crimes against humanity, amnesties are not permissible,” he said, in an effort to pre-empt promises of amnesty for president Bashar al-Assad, his entourage, and opposition figures.

Since January 25th when the talks were originally scheduled to commence, Russia’s air force has carried out 468 sorties on targets in northern Syria, striking more than 1,300 “terrorist” targets, Moscow’s defence ministry announced. The ministry also said it had dropped more than 200 tonnes of humanitarian aid to the Islamic State-besieged town of Deir al-Zor, where starvation looms.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times