Syrian Peace Talks Begin Friday

Syrian Peace Talks Begin FridaySyrian Peace Talks Begin Friday

The United Nations said on Monday it would issue invitations for marathon Syrian peace talks to begin this week, but opposition groups signaled they would stay away unless the government and its Russian allies halt airstrikes and lift sieges on towns.

The first talks in two years to end the Syrian civil war were meant to begin on Monday but have been held up in part by a dispute over who should represent the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said he was still working on his list and expected to issue the invitations on Tuesday for talks to start on Friday.

The aim would be six months of talks, first seeking a ceasefire, later working toward a political settlement to a war that has killed more than 250,000 people and driven more than 10 million from their homes, Reuters reported.

The ceasefire would cover the whole country except parts held by the self-styled Islamic State militants and Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, the Nusra Front, de Mistura told a news conference in Geneva.

De Mistura, whose two predecessors quit in apparent frustration after holding failed peace conferences of their own, acknowledged the going would be difficult. Delegations would meet in separate rooms in “proximity talks”, with diplomats shuttling between them. Threats to pull out should be expected.

“Don’t be surprised: There will be a lot of posturing, a lot of walkouts or walk-ins because a bomb has fallen or someone has done an attack ... You should neither be depressed nor impressed, but it’s likely to happen,” he said. “The important thing is to keep momentum.”

  Selling Martyrs

The spokesman for one of the rebel groups in the opposition High Negotiating Committee said it was impossible for the opposition to attend as long as militant territory is being pounded by airstrikes.

“It is impossible to give up any of our demands. If we attend, it’s as if we are selling our martyrs,” said Abu Ghiath al-Shami, spokesman for Alwiyat Seif Al-Sham, one of the groups fighting against Syrian forces in the southwest.

The head of the Syrian opposition’s negotiating team said on Tuesday he was not optimistic about the upcoming peace talks in Geneva. Assad Zoubi was quoted by Arabic news channel Al-Hadath that recent diplomatic moves “did not give cause for optimism over the negotiations”.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday that some participants of the Syria peace process had been “capricious” by refusing to negotiate.

“When there are attempts to put conditions for collective fight against terrorism, conditions that are irrelevant, such as ‘if you agree to a regime change, for example, in Syria, then we will for real begin to fight terrorism collectively’ ... that is, I believe, the biggest mistake,” Lavrov told a press conference.

  Syrians Retake Key Town

The Syrian Army has reportedly managed to take full control of a strategic town in the southern province of Dara’a, as they continue to gain ground in battles against militants.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Tuesday that Syrian forces had retaken the key town of Sheikh Miskeen from militants, cutting off their routes between eastern and western Daraa Province.

A day earlier, Syrian Army sources said the army had taken control of more than 90% of Sheikh Miskeen.

The UK-based group said the clashes are now taking place outside the western parts of Sheikh Miskeen, which lies at a crossroads linking the provinces of Suwaida, Quneitra and Damascus to the southern part of the country.

The army, backed by airstrikes carried out by Russian and Syrian warplanes, launched the offensive against militants in the town late last month.

A security source told AFP that Sheikh Miskeen was a “launching pad” for militant operations, and one of the opposition’s “centers of gravity for the whole of Daraa Province.”