UN envoy Staffan de Mistura on Friday announced he had held "substantive talks" with the Syrian government delegation but chided the Riyadh-based opposition for boycotting the opening of negotiations to end the war in Syria.
He said "we need two interlocutors" to hold discussions under UN mediation and urged the Higher Negotiations Committee (HNC) to come to Geneva to address issues laid down in UN Security Council resolution 2254.
He said he agreed with the HNC that it is important for the people in Syria to speak of an end to sieges, bombardment, and humanitarian access but argued the place to deal with these issues is here in Geneva.
The 16-member government team, headed by UN ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari, included two members of parliament and foreign ministry officials. Talks lasted 2½ hours.
Independents, civil society activists and non-governmental organisations could join discussions on the weekend or Monday. Veteran activist Randa Kassis said: "Something has to start. We have to think of the Syrian people."
Saudi-sponsored HNC – regarded in western and some Arab capitals as the main opposition delegation – is expected to send a team to Geneva in coming days.
The talks were originally scheduled for January 25th but were delayed by the HNC’s refusal to attend unless it is deemed to be the sole representative of the Syrian people and to receive assurances that government and Russian bombing and sieges of insurgent-held areas would cease.
Mr de Mistura is not in a position to meet the security preconditions which had been laid down in a letter to UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon.
Preparing to travel
As debate within the HNC continued in Riyadh, a delegation of civilians rather than members of armed groups was preparing to travel to Geneva with, at a minimum, the intention of putting their case to the UN and the media.
This delegation would be expanded once it has been decided to join the talks. The US, Britain, France and Germany have urged the HNC to attend.
An independent opposition co-ordinator, who predicted on Wednesday the HNC would not participate, remarked: "They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity", referring to the refusal of armed groups to reach a truce in Aleppo which Mr de Mistura tried to broker in March 2015.
The talks began as government forces, under Russian air cover, advanced in both the northern Latakia and southern Deraa provinces, strengthening Damascus’s position in the talks and raising concern in Riyadh that the HNC would be at a disadvantage in Geneva because their forces have lost territory. By securing an end to bombardments and sieges, the HNC and its supporters could hope to retain its grip on territory government forces seek to retake.
The task ahead is to achieve a country-wide ceasefire and establish a unity government which will oversee the drafting of a new constitution and elections by August 2017.