New Syria Peace Talks to Tackle Core Issues

New Syria Peace Talks to Tackle Core IssuesNew Syria Peace Talks to Tackle Core Issues

A new round of indirect peace talks beginning Monday will see Syria’s government and opposition engage for the first time in concrete discussions on the future of the war-torn country.

The negotiations at the United Nations in Geneva are part of the biggest international effort to date to end Syria’s conflict, which has killed more than 270,000 people, AFP reported.

UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura announced that the talks will launch on March 14, the eve of Syria’s five-year anniversary as a country at war.

Analysts say much has changed since the last round collapsed in February, but that the huge government-opposition divide will complicate a settlement.

The central obstacles are the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, presidential elections and the type of new government.

The last time the opposition and government were in Geneva, clashes were raging across the country, especially in the northern province of Aleppo.

But since February 27, a fragile truce brokered by the United States and Russia is reported to have been largely held despite accusations of violating the truce by both sides.

The reduction in violence has allowed the UN to deliver humanitarian aid to some 240,000 people in 10 out of 18 besieged areas nationwide, a crucial opposition demand.

According to de Mistura, the negotiations will last two weeks and would first discuss an inclusive new government followed by a fresh constitution, then parliamentary and presidential elections in 18 months.

The Syrian government has rejected a new structure for the country’s future, saying Assad’s future is not on the table.

“We will not talk with anyone who wants to discuss the presidency ... Bashar al-Assad is a red line,” Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told reporters Saturday. “If they (the opposition) continue with this approach, there’s no reason for them to come to Geneva.”

Muallem also lambasted de Mistura for saying the talks would cover presidential elections, saying the envoy “has no right” to set the agenda.

The government plans to hold both elections as scheduled, with a parliamentary vote next month and a presidential election in 2021 after Assad’s seven-year term ends.

It has repeatedly called for a “unity government” with opposition members instead of a transitional period.

  Federal System Rejected

The only point of agreement between both sides is the categorical rejection of a federal system.

Syria’s Kurds have carved out autonomous zones in the north and northeast, hoping that a federal system would allow them independent rule there.

The leading Kurdish party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party, was not invited to either round of talks.

On Saturday, de Mistura told Swiss newspaper Le Temps that although the Kurds were not invited, they should be allowed to voice their views on Syria’s political future.

About half of Syria is controlled by either the self-styled Islamic State terrorist group or Al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, hindering the implementation of any agreement.

  Costly War

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based opposition group that monitors the war, puts the death toll at more than 270,000, while a recent report by the Syrian Center for Policy Research, an independent think tank, said 470,000 deaths have been caused by the conflict, either directly or indirectly.

Almost half of Syria’s prewar population of 23 million has been displaced by the war. The UN refugee agency says there are 6.5 million displaced within Syria and 4.8 million refugees outside Syria.

Much of the remaining population is in dire need of humanitarian assistance. The refugees have mostly fled to neighboring countries—Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq—and have flooded Europe, where most arrive after a treacherous sea journey from Turkey.

Almost all of Syria’s UNESCO World Heritage sites have been either damaged or destroyed, including Aleppo in the north, the ancient town of Basra in the south and the Palmyra archeological site.

Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq have borne the brunt of the economic impact of the war. The World Bank estimates, for instance, that the influx of more than 630,000 Syrian refugees has cost Jordan over $2.5 billion a year. Cash-strapped Lebanon is also stretched to a breaking point and Turkey has agreed to take in refugees against a hefty €3 billion aid from Europeans.