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Syria’s ‘moment of truth’ as Geneva talks begin

With the crisis approaching its fifth anniversary this week, Western states seem determined to bring an end to the war

Published: Updated:

Syria faces a moment of truth, U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura said on Monday as he opened the first of three rounds of peace talks envisaged to negotiate a “clear roadmap” for a future Syria.

Saying there was no “plan B” but a return to war, de Mistura asked to hear from all sides but said he would have no hesitation in calling in the big powers, led by the United States and Russia, if the talks get bogged down.

“If during these talks and in the next rounds we will see no notice of any willingness to negotiate... we will bring the issue back to those who have influence, and that is the Russian Federation, the USA... and to the Security Council,” he told a news conference.

The talks are the first to be held in more than two years and come amid an unprecedented cessation in hostilities sponsored by Washington and Moscow and accepted by President Bashar al-Assad’s government and most of his foes.

The truce, the first of its kind in a 5 year-old war that has killed 250,000 people, has sharply reduced the fighting over the past two weeks, giving rise to hope that this diplomatic initiative will succeed where all previous efforts failed. The cessation was agreed after de Mistura called off a previous attempt to convene talks last month.

The talks must focus on political transition, which is the “mother of all issues,” de Mistura said, while separate taskforces would keep tackling humanitarian issues and the cessation of hostilities.

“As far as I know, the only Plan B available is return to war, and to even worse war than we had so far.”

All sides attending the talks have committed to a political transition that will follow the war, but Assad and his opponents disagree fundamentally on what that means, including whether the president must leave power.

The first round of talks will end around March 24, followed by a break of 7-10 days, then a second round of at least two weeks before another recess and a third round.

“By then we believe we should have at least a clear roadmap. I’m not saying agreement, but a clear roadmap because that’s what Syria is expecting from all of us.”

De Mistura did not mention whether Kurdish leaders would be involved for the first time, but said that the “proximity” format of indirect talks gave him flexibility to hear as many voices as possible, and all Syrians should be given a chance.

The main Kurdish YPG militia, which controls a swathe of northern Syria and is backed by the United States in combat with ISIS fighters, has so far been excluded from talks in line with the views of Turkey, which considers it a terrorist group.

“The rule of the game will be inclusiveness,” de Mistura said.

“In fact, the list of those whom we are going to consult or meet, or will be part of -- eventually, I hope -- not only of proximity negotiations but in fact direct negotiations is going to be constantly updated.

Meanwhile, recent cooperation between the United States and Russia has helped to reduce the level of violence and brought the parties to Geneva, the positions of the government and opposition reveal little ground for a negotiated settlement.

Pointing to a possible escalation in the war if there is no progress, the Russian defense ministry said rebels had used an anti-aircraft missile to shoot down a Syrian warplane on Saturday.

Rebels said it was shot down with anti-aircraft guns, rather than a missile, a weapon fighters have sought but Western countries want to keep out of their hands because of the potential threat to civil aviation if militants acquire them.

Reflecting the Damascus government's confidence, Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem warned the opposition on Saturday it was deluded if it believed it would be able to take power at the negotiating table, and ruled out any talks on the presidency.

Read to fight on

The opposition are holding out little hope that Geneva will bring them nearer to their goal of toppling Assad. Announcing its decision to attend the Geneva talks, the main opposition umbrella group said the government was preparing for more war.

Rebels say they are ready to fight on despite their recent defeats. They hope foreign backers - notably Saudi Arabia - will send them more powerful weapons including anti-aircraft missiles if the political process collapses.

"I expect that if in this round the regime is stubborn, and doesn't offer anything real, it will be the end of the talks and we will go back to the military solution," said Bashar al-Zoubi, a prominent rebel.

The talks aim to build on a "cessation of hostilities" agreement brokered by the United States and Russia that has brought about a considerable reduction in fighting since it came into effect on Feb. 27.

It marks the most serious effort yet towards de-escalating the conflict, surprising many and allowing for aid deliveries to besieged areas, though the opposition says the deliveries to rebel-held territory fall well short of needs.

The sides have, however, accused each other of violations, and Saturday was one of the most violent days since it came into force, with rebels and government forces clashing in Hama province and insurgents shooting down the warplane.

The Russian defense ministry said a portable air-defense system had been used to bring down the Syrian MiG-21.

"Russia wants to accuse the friends of the Syrian people of supplying it with missiles, and this did not happen," said Mohammad Alloush, head of the politburo of the Jaish al-Islam group and HNC chief negotiator.

He said all groups were requesting the means to defend civilians from warplanes and barrel bombs - oil drums filled with explosives that the opposition says the army uses to cause indiscriminate damage in rebel areas.

Rebels under pressure

The main opposition alliance, known as the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), comes to the talks with the balance of forces stacked against it after Russia's intervention and an increase in military support to Assad from Iran, his other main ally.

The HNC has also voiced concerns about what it sees as a softening of the U.S. stance on Syria, saying Washington has given ground to Moscow. HNC official George Sabra, speaking in Geneva, called the American position "ambiguous, even for its allies".

The HNC says the talks must focus on setting up a transitional governing body with full executive powers, and that Assad must leave power at the start of the transition.

But Foreign Minister Muallem on Saturday set out a very different vision, indicating that the most the government would offer was a national unity government with opposition participation, and a new or amended constitution.

He also said the government delegation would resist any attempt to put the question of presidential elections on the agenda, and criticized U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura for last week outlining an agenda that includes elections.

De Mistura is due meet the sides separately on Monday before briefing the Security Council.

'Spoiler'

Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar Ja'afari, head of the government delegation, said the talks needed to work on preparatory issues first and it was premature to talk about a transitional period.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Muallem's comments aimed to disrupt the political process.

Kerry also said the Syrian government and its backers were mistaken if they thought they could continue to test the boundaries of the fragile truce. Accusing Damascus of carrying out the most violations, Kerry said Russian President Vladimir Putin needed to look at how Assad was acting.

"President Assad is singing on a completely different song sheet and sent his foreign minister out yesterday to try to act as a spoiler and take off the table what President Putin and the Iranians have agreed to," Kerry said.

Attempts to get the diplomatic process moving have already faced big obstacles, including a row over who should be invited to negotiate with the Syrian government. The HNC groups political and armed opponents of Assad.

Russia reiterated its view that the Kurdish PYD party, which wields wide influence in northern Syria, should be at the talks. The PYD has been excluded in line with the wishes of Turkey, which views it as an extension of the PKK group that is waging an insurgency in southeastern Turkey.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow had evidence that Turkish armed forces were on Syrian territory, calling Turkey's actions "creeping expansion". There was no immediate Turkish response, but Ankara has in the past repeatedly denied that it was planning an incursion.

Lavrov also said Monday that ultimatums do not help to create an atmosphere of accord at the Syrian peace talks in Geneva, RIA
news agency reported.

Though not invited, PYD leader Saleh Muslim told Reuters he hoped the talks would not fail, adding: "If they do, the results will be disastrous for everyone."